July 18, 2024

COLUMN: Finding others

Make your own case

A few weeks ago I felt like I was told the only culture I knew and accepted in my life was in yogurt. And I don’t eat yogurt very often.

I was upset at the results of a cultural bias test I took online. What added to my emotion was how the test was executed. I didn’t feel like I was being asked about my experiences with other cultures. It was more like a memory match game, where you find the two cards, for example, that each have the same picture of an apple. You have to remember where the cards are so when it’s your turn you can pick both. I didn’t understand the logic of the test.

I didn’t like how I was perceived. That was also part of the test. The results showed how I thought I was with other cultures, or diversity, and how I actually am with them.

My impressionable teenage years were in rural, eastern Colorado living with a noticeable Hispanic population. I knew several of the people of that ethnicity. A Hispanic friend was just two doors down. I never thought twice of who he was on a Census form as we played basketball and slept summer nights in the boat parked in the driveway of our mutual neighbor.

My exposure to other cultures increased in college with Black people. I had little interaction with Black people during that time. There was a girl in my high school graduating class who was considered Black. I met her through mutual friends. Her mother eventually cut my hair.

I don’t think it was by choice for how I interacted with other cultures, much more by chance. I remember few, if any, Black people in my college classes.

My exposure to culture would essentially be the same for my adult life. I chose to live in Iowa, a state called “white bread” as political analysts complain while we go first in the presidential nomination process. “Iowa isn’t culturally diverse enough,” they say.

As an adult and attempting to establish and develop a career in newspapers, I chose to live in rural America, specifically in the middle of the country. I’ve also been in western Kansas. Again, I had better chances with more culture in yogurt than with diversity in places I chose to live.

The test I took had additions for certain categories. One was people with a significant disability. That intrigued me as a college instructor and a former coworker both used wheelchairs.

During the last week my exposures to other cultures drastically changed. I met a man who was from India and has spent the last 23 years of his life in America. He was a dentist in Delaware before moving to Iowa. He said he grew tired of the stereotypical East Coast environment with the multiple cities of massive population numbers. He likes Iowa because of its easier pace and dramatically fewer people compared to the East Coast.

He added he saw how people in Delaware may have been resistant to those from New York City or Philadelphia. Delaware is a tiny state and residents may fear having it taken over by others strictly for financial benefits. Delaware’s tax structure is more advantageous. I wondered if that would show up as culturally lacking on a test.

He told me during his time in India he learned much about the Hindu faith. Like Christianity, there are many different choices of Hindu (like church denominations). He said there isn’t enough time this summer to tell me all the differences among the branches of Hindu. He said he knows Hindus he would trust with his life. Again, another example of cultural differences and which ones a person would be more accepting.

I am confident he will be one of those people who I will talk to every so often in the future and he will continue to make me feel comforted and secure. I didn’t think of him as the “guy from India.”

Two more people were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If you know your geography of Africa, the Congo is unique as there are two countries in Africa that use the Congo name. The other, a much smaller sized country, is called the Republic of Congo. According to encyclopedias, “While they share the same name and border, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo have distinct histories, cultures, and challenges.”

One of the men told me the Democratic Republic of Congo has dozens of tribes. Each tribe has its own language dialect and traditions. The country has had its history with political unrest.

Then there were women from the Philippines and Thailand. One woman was well adjusted to American culture. The other was not near as fluent speaking English and was just beginning to learn American culture and our sometimes unnecessary behaviors. It was hard for me to listen to others explain some of the pointless things we do or do without even thinking about why we do it.

Another man was from Myanmar, also called Burma. The country, whatever you call it, has a history of military rule, poverty, civil war and clashes between ethnic groups.

The goal for the woman from Thailand is to create a safe, secure, encouraging place in Iowa for others from her homeland who come here for a better life.

Maybe I can help her and others to achieve that. A consequence is maybe I will be better too.

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.