This is one of three winning essays in AFS's "Pass Peace Forward" competition, in which YES and CBYX students were asked to describe their role in public diplomacy, including how their individual actions might promote peace and empathy in their host and home communities.
Photo: Hritwik giving a presentation on India to his local church.
By Hritwik Singh, YES 2016-2017, India, hosted by AFS in St. Louis, MO
‘’The Open Hand is ready to give and receive; it symbolizes peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind.” These words, inscribed on the Open Hand monument in Chandigarh, my home town, catches perfectly the spirit of AFS’s, and YES's, Pass Peace Forward mission. Only by bringing cultures together can we ensure peace and harmony.
The biggest hurdle in this is our own ingrained prejudice. I too had my own prejudices about Americans before this program. I thought of the average American as lazy, arrogant and materialistic, something that I now know is not true at all. The Americans I have met have been very friendly, hard-working and generally open-minded people. Prejudices are unfair and fairly easy to form, making them the most challenging aspect of intercultural understanding. The first step in bridging cultures is to tackle prejudice.
I have seen other people’s perceptions about India and Indians change as well. The prejudices are just as inaccurate. When people think about Indians they often picture ugly, dirty people covered in sweat, dirt poor and living in overcrowded slums.
Stereotypes like this are borne out of prejudice built up over time. It does not mean that people are inherently racist; it’s just that they have never actually met or had a conversation with someone from another culture. Programs like YES bring people together and make them realize that we may look different, dress and act differently, but at the end of the day we are united by the common spirit of humankind.
To quote George Bernard Shaw: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Being on cultural exchange has really changed the way I view the world. I am sharing my own culture with my friends and classmates while getting to know more about the U.S. I volunteer to feed the homeless at my local food pantry and I have also done several presentations about India and its culture. Participating in this program is the most impactful thing I have done so far.
Just like the Open Hand is the symbol of my hometown, the Gateway to the West is the symbol of my host town, St. Louis. To me, it represents the Gateway towards greater cultural understanding.