Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Diversity training by travel


Aria tried to get the conversational ball rolling. "What's your favorite joke?"

"You mean my favorite joke that I can tell you?" I amended in deference to her age, which is 8, which puts her, she says, in the "third and a half grade" at Dater Montessori School in Westwood. Those fractions are critical at her age. At mine, I am tempted to round downward. But we have decided to celebrate our differences.

Diversity, we generally call it. Which generally is code for black and white. Aria and I have decided to expand our horizons to include age and race and country of origin. She has some experience in global diversity, having traveled to Italy, Mexico and, most recently Russia.

Aria orders french toast and sausage, which she will have burned off by noon. I self-righteously order poached eggs and dry toast, which I will supplement an hour later with a half-dozen thin mint Girl Scout cookies. I will burn off these calories by March. Easter at the very latest.

I told her my best knock-knock joke. Which she had already heard.

Pleasantries out of the way, we got down to business.

Aria has just returned from Russia on a mission sponsored by the United Methodist Church. She celebrated Russian Orthodox Christmas Jan. 7 in Samara about 500 miles southeast of Moscow.

The grand plan

Her grandmother, Martha Brice, who coordinates volunteers for the West Ohio Conference, says Aria was the first person on the team to "bridge the cultural barrier." This means, Aria explains, that she was the first one to make friends. Her new friend is Lena, 10, a resident of the orphanage in Samara.

Lena does not speak English, nor does Aria speak Russian. Not a problem. "We just showed each other stuff." So, with gestures and a considerable investment of time, the two girls connected.

That was the grand plan, according to Martha, who says her church sends "10,000 volunteers every year across the street and around the world." Making those connections. Martha says once you know them "you could never hate your neighbor again."

This seems optimistic, but she insists she has seen it in action. "When I was growing up," Martha says, "we were told Russian people were our enemies. Aria knows better. She has a Russian friend."

Aria saw the world's largest cannon at the Kremlin, ate cabbage soup and bought a czarina's crown. "Not a real one," she explains. Furthermore, she saw a man swimming in the Volga River in a hole in the ice "with nothing on. Nothing. Not even underwear."

She giggles.

A sight like that will come back on you, even if you are discussing something as serious as world affairs. Or diversity.

"Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream," Aria says at breakfast on Monday, "about peace and freedom for all people." All of them.

Including old people, fat people, dark people, light people and naked people. Including people wearing yarmulkes, burkas and Easter bonnets. Including Lena. Including Aria.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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