Story by Zoe Lozano-Strickland, Dialogue of Civilizations | Photo by Sydney Wise
Growing up in Oakland, California, I never had to imagine a lifestyle different from mine and my community’s. I was raised by two working parents who emphasized independence, initiative and a diehard work ethic. My extended family was scattered along the West Coast with the majority residing overseas, making my conception of the family unit indelibly nuclear. Going to private high school and beginning to apply to university, ideals of competition and personal achievement were instilled in me from nearly every corner of life. My grades, my accomplishments and my extracurriculars added up to create my self-worth and acceptability when it came down to which schools chose me to be part of their 2016 freshman class. Under the guise of healthy competition, these qualities were celebrated by parents, friends, teachers and mentors alike to make me stand out when compared to my peers.
I went into my first Dialogue of Civilizations to Amman, Jordan with these values and societal concepts fully intact. Not very self aware, I believed the world shared my understanding of what mattered: personal success. Over the next five weeks, I immersed myself in language acquisition courses, met with local sheikhs and broke bread with relocated Syrian refugees. This gave me insight into a culture and way of life completely foreign from my own. My previous exposure to other cultures consisted of my grandmother’s Mexican cooking and the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations that paraded down my street every winter. Besides these glimpses, I had been born and bred into a capitalist American way of life. Now, for the first time, I had the ability to learn about and immerse myself in another set of norms and values that would allow me the chance to evaluate my own culture and begin questioning the customs I had arbitrarily subscribed to.
The first, and most glaring, difference I encountered was their focus on the community over the self. I had conceptualized the family unit as a support system to help me succeed in my personal endeavors. Like most of American society, I prioritized my individual goals and desires over those of others and my community. However, when sitting in a community circle with a community sheikh just outside the city limits, I heard a completely different perspective. They highlighted unity, community and the supreme importance of the larger family unit. At first, I was taken aback and almost angered by the idea that the needs of my family should take precedence over my own. But listening to the crux of this community leader’s message, I started grasping the bigger picture. There is strength and beauty that comes from the love and consideration of something larger than yourself. Instead of hearing “your goals don’t matter,” I heard “we are all stronger, and we all benefit, when we work together as one.” This message had no emphasis on winning, competition or cut throat ambition. Instead, this value system placed the prosperity of the community at the forefront of individual priorities and actions. As I came out of the meeting, “it takes a village” ran on repeat across my mind.
My trip to Amman and subsequent travels to the Middle East have taught me to question and analyze the values of the cultural system that I grew up in. My family and community play a vital role in my identity beyond awards, honors and a career. They are instrumental in helping me succeed and celebrate my accomplishments. I have since implemented a more balanced value system into my life where grades and a polished resume are no longer my only metrics of success; I also recognize the value of the bonds and relationships I have with the people around me and those who have always been by my side. I never could have gotten to where I am today without the help and love of my community. It is critical that we remember we are where we are today not solely because of our own personal merits, but because of the efforts of the countless people who came before us.