India Nelson ’20 RGLP Reflection: Culture in The Broadest Sense

Each fall, winter, and spring, the Rockefeller Global Leadership Program (RGLP) brings together 25 student leaders to increase their understanding of global leadership and intercultural competency. Through weekly sessions with speakers and a culminating experience to either Boston, Montreal, or New York City, the students are able to learn about themselves and cross-cultural leadership. The Spring 2019 cohort spent a weekend in Montreal as part of their culminating experience.

As a I reflect back on my experience in RGLP, I am struck by the change in the way I conceptualize culture. For me personally, the way I most immediately define culture is defined by language, ethnicity, and state boundaries. During the program, my understanding of culture was broadened, as I understood how cultures are nuanced and nested, overlapping and often cross geographic boundary lines. I believe that one of the greatest challenges in navigating culture is recognizing the intangible aspects of culture. Additionally, following the program, I believe that in acceptance, there is an acceptance of the limits of understanding. I am grateful to the Rockefeller Center for providing me with a wealth of opportunities to explore culture in the broadest sense of the word. 

During RGLP, our cohort had the opportunity to question the dimensions along which we define culture. In Montreal, we attended a Queer Asian Cabaret, met with members of the Deaf Community of Montreal, and visited the Ashukan Cultural Space, an indigenous art gallery where we visited with Quebecois First Nations Members. From these experiences, I was able to see that cultures and identities do not neatly fit together. In fact, many inhabitants of Montreal have multiple identities—not only as Anglophones and Francophones, but as members of various ethnic, religious, racial, and social groups. 

On our First Evening, we attended Kalyug: A Queer Cabaret in the Age of Darknessas a part of the Festival Accès Asie, or Asian Access Festival. During the Cabaret, we listened to the stories of many people close in age to me. We heard spoken word poetry from a Japanese-Malaysian woman about the challenges she faced in reconciling her Japanese identity as a young girl in Malaysia. Despite growing up in Malaysia, she never truly felt at home in Malaysia due to her Japanese heritage. Although she grew up in Malaysia many years after World War II, Japan’s historical imperial presence colored the ways her peers related to her. Her story was a reminder to interrogate the political and historical context, and how identity and the development of personal culture bear on historical events. A Francophone Quebecois also performed spoken word poetry that explored her personal identity as a Chinese adoptee and a Quebecois, and her relationships with her biological and adoptive families.

Another performance that was impactful, was the storytelling of a young Vietnamese transgender man who grew up in rural Saskatchewan. The young man described his experience in Canada, and how he relates to his identity as the son of a Boat Person—his mother fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War. There were many performers, and the thing that unified them, beyond identifying with the Asian community in Montreal, was that each had multiple identities—identities that were not “neat.” For many their identities were layered—French speaking, English speaking, Canadian, Asian, queer identifying, etc. For some, these identities were not always visible. And for others, they were not always easy to reconcile or understand. What I found most meaningful about the event, was that despite the complexity of their identities, the performers and the community members in the audience found solidarity. They seemed to understand that they each have had different lived experiences, that they might not fully understand each other, but nonetheless, they could support each other.

Through the various experiences I was afforded in Montreal, I broadened my understanding of culture, and explored the way I navigate culture, especially in contexts in which identities overlap, and identities may be nuanced or invisible. What I found most novel, was the affirmation that I didn’t not need to fully understand another person’s experience to connect with them. I think with acknowledgement of difference and the limits of understanding, mutual respect and a desire for human connection, dialogue can be fostered across differences. 

-Written by India Nelson ’20, Spring 2019 RGLP Participant

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.