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Suzanne Tobias: Author offers advice on opening children’s eyes to other cultures

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at 9:56 a.m.

The young woman approached the microphone and told author Khaled Hosseini how much she had enjoyed his books, appreciated them, learned from them.

“The first two kind of opened my eyes to the whole Afghan culture,” she said, referring to “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Hosseini’s best-selling novels set in Afghanistan. “I think I was similar to a lot of Americans, as far as being ignorant and almost fearful after 9/11.”

Then she asked her question: “I’m a fifth-grade teacher, and I’m wondering what you might suggest as far as breaking down those stereotypes, so it doesn’t continue on for generations?”

Hosseini’s visit and book-signing, held earlier this month to coincide with the release of his third novel, “And the Mountains Echoed,” was sponsored by Wichita State University and Watermark Books & Cafe.

I attended the event with a friend. We both were struck by the doctor-turned-author’s humble demeanor, the surprised gratitude with which he replied to heaps of lavish praise.

What stayed with me most, though, was Hosseini’s response to the teacher.

Educate – really educate – your children, he told her. “Promote dialogue. Expose them to different cultures. Try to show them alternative views.”

“I can’t pretend I go into this with the role of educator, but that is something that readers seem to get out of my books,” he said. “They end up seeing Afghanistan in a more human way and identifying with the hopes and … struggles of those people, even though they’re very different.”

Hosseini continued: “I try to get my kids to read books about different parts of the world, because it’s important to me that my kids realize their world doesn’t begin and end with their ZIP code.…

“You can suddenly become very insular. I want my kids to understand that in today’s world, what happens in Turkey and Syria will have an impact on our lives.… We’re all connected now. There were days when what happened on the other side of the world didn’t affect us. Those days are over.”

Encourage students to read books, listen to music and see films from other parts of the world, he suggested. Develop and promote international awareness.

More and more, schools — the best ones, anyway — are finding ways to help students develop as global citizens. In an increasingly interconnected world, goes the thinking, today’s youngsters need to be able to communicate and engage with people from a wide range of cultures and traditions. We prize diversity, or at least say we do.

In many homes, though, those lessons tend to be overshadowed by our constant, insulated, Western (if not American) mindset. We read our children “Goodnight Moon” and Harry Potter. We watch “Man of Steel.” We listen to Taylor Swift. We eat burgers. We text. We shop. We work. We drive.

Lacking the budget for international travel, we seem content in our own little world. It’s easy to believe it’s the center of the universe, not just a tiny piece of it.

Hosseini noted that one of his favorite books and a primary influence on his writing – the Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings,” a kind of Persian “Odyssey” – is “tragically under-appreciated” in the West. Not surprisingly, I had never heard of it.

We have to do better: Think globally. Promote understanding. Explore new worlds, languages and cultures.

And remember that our horizon, so vast and beautiful during a Kansas sunset, is just the beginning.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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