Amalgamation of diverse culture at No Man’s Land - Bhawani Singh (India, 2019/20)

Bhawani Singh profile

We ate and drank, we danced and sang, all together, and made that cultural evening memorable by dissolving our individualism and emerging as a global citizen

Back in India, when I was applying for the Fulbright Teaching Excellence Achievement Program, the question popped up on the screen, “What skill do you think is a must for a FTEA participant and why?” and the most essential skill that flashed in my mind for a FTEA participant was Cross Cultural Understanding.  People from 67 diverse socio, economic, political and religious backgrounds were expected to stay and learn together for six weeks. For such an assorted group to co-exist mutual cross cultural understanding was needed. I was of the strong opinion that to develop this skill one should have to be tolerant, empathetic, and liberal in thoughts and for that a comparative study of major world religions would have sufficed the purpose.

In No Man's Land
In No Man's Land

And it had been one of my cherished desires to do a comparative study of world religion since I had read Kushwant Singh’s book “Truth, Love and a Little Malice” in which he had given a vivid description of one such classroom with students from sundry nations. I had also read about famous world personalities like Rajaram Mohan Roy, RamkrishanParahamansa, Mahatama Gandhi and many more who had studied different religious texts to develop a world view about humanity at large. So when I got the academic calendar from California State University, Chico, with the content area likely to be covered during the six week stay for FTEA spring Cohort, I was a bit disappointed not to find any such class for the participants. I scanned the various courses offered by Chico University and found the course Comparative Religion and Humanities on the offer list. I made up my mind to at least attend one class, once at CSU, Chico to feel the diversity of thoughts likely to be discussed in that class.

Prof. Jed wearing Gandhi Cap
Prof. Jed wearing Gandhi Cap

Crossing 12500Kms, 3 time zones, 3 seas, 2 oceans and 5 continents I reached Sacramento, the capital of California. Diana Parks, Heather Hacking, and Dr. Zartman as per their commitment were ready to receive us in the baggage claim area. The arrival of participants was at different times from noon until midnight so it was not possible to meet all participants there at Sacramento airport. I had reached at 5.30 PM and was exhausted after almost 40 hours of journey including lay-over time, with the biological clock tickling reverse and bouts of jet lagging. Dr. Zartman was busy matching different groups with drivers for the last part of our journey towards Chico. Tired and exhausted I was in no mood to follow the instruction of Zartman that women participants be accommodated first although for that I felt sorry. I along with my fellow flight partners Steven from Burma, Maria from Ukraine, and Asta from Lithuania took the first car. Had I not taken that car following Dr. Zartman’s advice and had given my seat to some other participant I would have missed the opportunity to meet Jed who was driving the car. The distance from Sacramento to Chico was 86 miles, 1 hour 30 minutes of a non-stop drive. During that drive Jed was getting familiar with all four of us. Jed’s erudite responses, quick and witty remarks about world literature, our culture, our country, assured my mind that he was more than a driver. And there I got the first shock when he revealed that he was faculty at Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities CSU Chico taking regular classes at room no. 377. Why was it a shock for me? For such an act of generosity from a learned faculty like him is considered to be a rare commodity. Meeting Dr. Jed on the very first day was like Manna from Heaven, for I was planning to take comparative religion studies at Chico and there I was sitting next to the man associated with that. I surprisingly asked him was there any full time job prospects for the students taking this course to which Dr. Jed pointed out that although there are few jobs directly in this field, but major companies required 21st century skills of empathy, cross cultural understanding, cooperation, team work which could only be developed by mingling with people from diverse background and doing a comparative study of world religions. I requested Dr. Jed to permit me to join his class at least once during my six week stay and his immediate approval was an open testimony of his generous heart. At 9 PM I was at Residency Inn and I snuggled myself in room no.110.

The World Is Flat
World is flat

It was Thursday, 30th January; second day as a FTEA participant at Chico and the experience of being part of an international program was yet to come. All of us were feeling homesick, were a bit shy, had newness anxiety, and to break the ice we received the invitation for ‘welcome reception’ cum ‘cultural evening.’ At 4.30 PM when I stepped at Selvester’s, Chico State the atmosphere inside was a sort of a fairy tale setting, a perfect global village where my fellow participants were donned in their traditional attire showcasing diversity, ethnicity, geography, and climate of the region they belonged to. The bright, colourful, richly embroidered apparels, with vivid laces, crochets, and skull caps with tongue twisting traditional names like Burmese Longyi, ViatnameseAo Dai, and Algerian Burnus transported the invitees to medieval ages like a time traveler. The air rented with tete-a-tete, cackles, and some serious conversations in different dialect and accent with unique lilt and all of us had to rely more on lip reading and facial expression to understand each other. 

Suddenly I noticed Prof. Jed Wyrick. I greeted him and he responded with his Martyrs Day greetings (as it was 30th January) showcasing his profound knowledge of Indian history. I complemented Prof. Jed for showing respect for the Martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi- The father of Indian Nation, an apostle of peace and non-violence. As a souvenir I offered Prof. Jed the Gandhi Cap which he reverently wore and talked about the celebration of Martin Luther King (MLK) day on 15th January - the man known as American Gandhi. Talking with Prof. Jed was so enlightening and it seemed to me as if I were in his class.

Inside the Selvester’s Hall all the borders bifurcating the world had dissolved, all the walls barring the free transit of people had crumbled. The lines of Noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore echoed in my mind in which he desired for a place, ‘Where the mind is free, and head is held high, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’ and I thought that in the days to come, our Residency Inn was going to be that place. 

But right at that moment, Selvester’s hall seemed to me to be ‘a no man’s land,’ I noticed Uzbeki, Azerbezani, Lithuanian, Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Russian and many more breaths mingling in the air. For almost an hour that place was like a melting pot of different nationalities amalgamating, and out of the pot emerged the single identity, the identity of a pure human being. Though our countries might have issues with other countries but those must be political issues and we all agreed upon the fact that here for the next six weeks we were cultural ambassador of our countries with the sole aim of exhibiting cross cultural understanding and to spread the message of Universal Peace and Brotherhood. We ate and drank, we danced and sang, all together, and made that cultural evening memorable by dissolving our individualism and emerging as a global citizen.

Mr. Bhawani Singh teaches English to grade 11 and 12 students at JNV Sirohi in the state of Rajasthan, India. He has two Masters degree in History and English. He has 20 years of teaching experience. He has international exposure working with Thinkquest, IBM reinventing education and Microsoft Project Shiksha. He loves innovation and experimentation in education. As a 2020 Fulbright TEA Scholar at CSU Chico, he has worked on new pedagogical strategies to teach and design curriculum for English as second language. He loves travelling and as a blogger he has written about his experiences as a Fulbrighter in his upcoming book.

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