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Column: Exposure to other cultures opens new opportunities

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As a social scientist, I have been trained to find a rationale for each phenomenon I encounter. I try to explain why things happen the way they do. As I am not a philosopher, I do not try to justify why things happen.

I have lived in the United States for almost 50 years. Over this time, several phenomena have caught my attention and have challenged me to find an explanation for their occurrence.

The first has occurred over the past several years. Many of the finalists in the national spelling bee over the past several years have been of South Asian Indian decent. In this year’s competition, four of the finalists as well as the two co-champions were of South Asian Indian descent.

The second relates to the Siemens Competition. This competition focuses on remarkably talented high school students who challenge themselves through science research. Even though Asia Americans comprise less than 5 percent of our population, these students receive half of these awards every year.

The third is the McDonald’s All-American high school basketball game. Each year, almost 90 percent of the selected participants are African-American.

The fourth is competitive swimming. Typically, most of those who qualify to compete at the Olympic level for this country are Caucasian.

The last is the business sector. In general, people of Jewish decent do very well academically and find business success.

In my mind, why do certain groups excel in particular areas? As a seasoned columnist, I know what to avoid. Stereotypes and race are very sensitive topics, and I will not go there. In our politically correct society, no one dares to explain anything based on race. If you do so, you are a racist.

No one wants to be called a racist; and for the most part, no one will admit to being a racist (see Donald Sterling). In order to avoid any controversy, let’s take race out of the equation. I will even go as far as stating that race has nothing to do with these phenomena.

The only explanation is that these phenomena are a function of culture. Culture is a way of life which shapes priorities in life.

Within the broad American culture, there are many subcultures. It is this subculture that dictates our value system and impacts what people value. In other words, an individual learns to accept or reject certain aspects of life based on his or her socioeconomic situation. I can say with reasonable certainty that family, education, news media and peer groups are the socialization agents that affect our lives. Through these, we develop our core values.

To explain this, we must not stereotype. Stereotypes must be avoided. The idea I am trying to convey is that once you live in, and are raised in a unique culture, your life is dictated by this value system. If this is truly the case, change will never truly be made. Change will not occur until we are exposed to different cultures so that we can truly appreciate another person’s way of life.

Where is the social mobility that we are promised by our democracy? We believe in equal opportunity where there should be no ceilings; the sky is limit. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

One of world’s greatest thinkers, Plato, advocated that man was not created equal in talent, but through universal education, each individual would develop within a respective discipline and then over time, excel in that discipline. In his utopia, different levels of education would determine your role in society.

Of course, Plato was not a democrat. He did not pay much attention to individual interests. His view was that each individual should perform his or her best for the better of the state. Plato’s ultimate goal was to create a perfect society.

As Americans, we do not appreciate this type of arrangement. We believe that each individual has a right to search for his or her own happiness. Based on different cultural aspects, however, it is hard for individuals to break through these cultural barriers. Remember, how hard it has been for Jeremy Lin to play in the NBA or when Tiger Woods started playing golf?

The way I see it is that we have not reached an ideal democratic society.

Families, peer groups, news media and schools have all shaped and biased our now predetermined values. The next generations will not be given the complete freedom to search for their own happiness. As a result, I am sure that many natural talents will be untapped and wasted.

If culture does not change, or more importantly, if we do not understand or appreciate other cultures, we will continue to see these types of phenomena. Maybe in my older age, I am overthinking this and there is nothing wrong.

Then again, what if there is. I should probably just enjoy my mindless retirement and follow the wisdom of Japan’s three wise monkeys: see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing. I am sure life will be much easier with my eyes wide shut.

Professor Yu-long Ling, a Franklin resident, is an expert in foreign policy. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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