Diversity's more than dances and dumplings

WHEN my parents and their friends in Indian cultural organizations put on "Culture Shows," they would present music, classical dance, plays, contests and lectures. They tried to make the programs substantive.

But as I was growing up in Northern California, I found that school "Culture Shows" were different. We'd have a day or a week to cover all the different ethnic groups.

Students put on identical technicolor fashion shows, performed interminable folk dances in colorful garb and set up food stalls in cafeterias. I could sample empanadas, piroshki, dim sum, lumpia, ravioli, gyoza or samosa, confirming that all cuisines have dumplings that look alike under fluorescent light.

Yet dance and clothes are but the trappings of a culture, and plates of dumplings are hardly informative. If I square-danced up to you wearing a tie-dyed shirt and offered you a plate of hush puppies, how much would you have learned about American culture?

If you don't know why square dancing started, or the social implications of tie-dyed clothes, or the geographic and economic conditions that led to the invention of hush puppies, then I've entertained your senses of sight and sound and taste, but I've left your mind as empty or full as before.

This is not quite fair to the hush puppies. Parents and schools should expose children to diverse cuisines so that they don't grow up with crushingly narrow palates. And a sufficiently smart youngster can confirm from a mango-and-sticky-rice dessert that the country of origin is a marshy, tropical land. Probably.

Music and dance also convey a lesson, though a more ineffable one, about the heart of a culture. Slave spirituals from the American South make the obvious example, but they're usually performed in English.

Sing a bhajan or ghazal for me without an English translation and all I get is pleasant, uplifting ear candy.

Multi-culti buffets and song-and-dance numbers do not an education in diversity make! We need to help kids understand the values of other cultures — their histories and taboos.

I suggest teaching a bit of recent history. Kids learn more about the '70s, '80s and '90s from pop-rock radio stations than from lessons about the distant past. If you teach world or U.S. history in a middle school or high school and cover the Vietnam War before the school year runs out, please let me know, because you deserve an award.

How can non-Asian schoolchildren understand why so many of their classmates are from southeast Asia without knowing about, say, the communist takeover of Laos or the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia?

Learning what different cultures consider taboo can help us avoid making inadvertent jerks of ourselves.

For example, many Asian cultures frown on eating meat, wearing shoes inside the house, or giving or receiving food or gifts with the left hand.

All these practices are considered dirty. The left hand is "unclean" because that's the hand that people in those cultures are supposed to clean themselves with after using the toilet.

Many Jews refuse tattoos, since they believe the human body is on loan from God. And some Muslims think women should cover their hair. And their faces. Or just not go outside at all.

In those examples, religious beliefs tell us what cultures implicitly avoid or value.

Inside jokes would reveal even more. I'd love to hear a bunch of kids trading the jokes they tell on themselves, making fun of their own cultural quirks and the stereotypes that have grounding in truth.

My sister and I rolled our eyes knowledgeably when a community event started hours late: "It'll start on Indian Standard Time," we'd say. Years later, we heard a Jewish friend mock tardiness in his parents' friends with the phrase "Jewish Standard Time."

It's fine to talk smack about our cultures. In fact, it's edifying. Sexism, racism, caste systems, oppressive governments and xenophobia have helped the world's cultures become what they are, just as enlightenment has. Our celebration of diversity has to acknowledge the dark and the great, the different ways we live and our unifying humanity.

But the fashion shows are safe from controversy, and they only take one lunch period. They're fast and pretty, like the package vacation trips that whiz tourists from one look-alike architectural marvel to the next. Through the bus window you'll see ready-made snapshots for your PowerPoint slideshow, but you could have gotten those off the Internet. You can't have a substantive experience in a foreign land without getting off the bus.

You can e-mail Sumana Harihareswara at sumana@crummy.com.