October 23, 2012
On the first episode of MTV’s “Exiled,” a 19-year-old veteran of “My Super Sweet 16” travels to Kenya to experience life in a Maasai village. The conceit of the show is that wealthy American teenagers like Amanda take their comfort for granted, and a trip to Kenya, Thailand or Vanuatu will inspire humility and gratitude. Predictably, Amanda is uncooperative and distant until her transformation towards the last commercial break. And so, in spite of its questionable veracity, “Exiled” presents a useful narrative to discuss in the context of otherness and cultural relativism.
After watching this episode last week, my students jumped on Amanda’s privilege and narrow perspective. But it’s easy to observe ethnocentrism on MTV and scoff at a spoiled teenager for refusing to build a hut with cow dung. It’s a lot harder when you’re the one facing a plate of chicken feet with a pair of chopsticks.
I teach an anthropology class called Sixteen that examines the coming-of-age experience in New York City and around the world, and the closest we can get to Kenya is Jing Fong restaurant on Elizabeth Street. The dim sum field trip is one of the first experiences in Sixteen, and it aims to introduce students to a cultural experience that is wholly unfamiliar and mildly uncomfortable. Like MTV, I’m interested in creating opportunities for my students that challenge them to confront their assumptions.
Many try the chicken feet, most struggle with the no-fork rule, and nearly everyone tries something unfamiliar. They document their experience in film, and draw on this meal throughout the class as an example of how they felt “different” in a space that they wouldn’t have ordinarily thought was available to them. Sixteen has been making the trip to dim sum for nearly two years, and students consistently report that it’s one of the best experiences in the course.
“Exiled” is problematic in a number of ways, not least because it suggests that the Maasai experience is a punishment and an antidote to teenage arrogance. Parts are difficult to watch because it’s so offensive. But there’s such tremendous value in the discomfort it suggests, in the space where we’re each forced to examine why we create the stories and rules that circumscribe our experience. I traveled the Vietnam and Laos this summer on a Fund for Teachers fellowship with my colleague who co-developed Sixteen, and we encountered that question when our host family’s children ate roasted beetles, while we watched a dog being gutted in a river, and as our interpreter told us he was saving for a dowry.
How can we build these types of uncomfortable experiences into our classrooms, even for children who experience adversity? (Discomfort is different from hardship; one is optional and one is not.) Amanda may be wealthy, but all of us draw a line between what we’re familiar with and what we’re not, and that line can be difficult to cross. When young people are encouraged to embrace their unease, they are more empathetic and curious, and are more able to overcome fear and hesitation. Eating chicken feet during third period is only the first step.
Christina Jenkins teaches design, cartography, and many other things at the NYC iSchool. Her interests include learning space design and illustrated fiction, and her classroom is www.roomfourzerotwo.com