Intercultural respectfulness

Faculté des sciences sociales
From the Field

Par Jacob

Student, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

Picture of a bag with some little international flags on it.
(En anglais seulement)

“Mental health has never been far from my mind during this pandemic.”

Jacob, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, India, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCCO)

While I, like many others, have been dealing with mental health challenges, I’ve also gotten the chance to research and do a bit of writing on mental health in schools in South Asia as part of my internship with UNESCO New Delhi. Thinking in both of these worlds has given me occasion to ponder the universality of anxiety for humans; but more importantly, it’s also given me a chance to think concretely about cultural appropriation, and honouring the cultures that we learn from.

I’ve got some techniques that help me cope well when my brain gets the best of me. I like to engage in mindfulness practices, through short meditations, controlled breathing, or during a walk in a nearby park. These are all practices that are in vogue in online wellness communities, and are gaining more and more traction in medical study. But while these practices are relatively new to Western/Canadian culture, we rarely discuss in depth the fact that they are originally an intrinsic part of South and East Asian heritage. Obviously, this kind of exchange carries some negative colonial implications. For example, as Twitter user @notallbhas observed: restyling the ancient Indian technique of Pranayama as “cardiac coherence breathing” is part of “an imperialist frenzy to steal ‘mystical’ eastern practices & [sell] it back as western ‘science’”.

Which brings me back to my internship. I got the chance to produce some supporting materials for the release of UNESCO New Delhi’s Minding Our Minds report, a document that provides mental health strategies for students and teachers to cope during this pandemic. Being produced by an Indian office in an Indian context, a lot of its recommendations are homegrown, like some instructional sections on yoga and meditation. For yoga, there is some important context: as a highly globalized hobby, yoga has been a focal point of the cultural appropriation dialogue in recent years, as the uOttawa community is well aware. In fact, the Indian government has mounted a campaign to remind the world’s yoga practitioners of the sport’s cultural and spiritual importance. As part of these efforts, the government has also spoken positively about how the widespread popularity of the sport presents an opportunity for cross-cultural bridge-building.

And so, while the Minding Our Minds report has an everyday importance for me through its stress-reducing tips, it has also given me an example of how international aid can fight against the negative power dynamic of colonialism. Its quiet assertiveness of yoga’s Indian heritage is a reminder for the world of the importance of being explicit about citing our sources, so to speak.

I believe that this approach can bring a character of respectfulness to our extremely globalized world. I’m also learning that, being a Westerner of privilege like I am, to do international work means to think critically about making sure my contributions are honouring the culture and people I serve.