Take a quick look at the people in your life.
Who are the three people you are closest with, outside of your family?
If they are all from the same country as you, chances are, you have been unwittingly stunting your mental development. You should do everything in your power to change those circumstances immediately.
Trust me, there is absolutely nothing like having a friend from another country.
There is a shared timidity in realizing everything you know and every fiber of your being are just effects of your immediate surroundings.
If, at this very moment, you do not have a single friend in your inner circle who is from another country, chances are, you are far more ignorant than you know.
Before I moved to NYC, I had zero international friends. Now, I’m truly struggling to hold onto my American ones.
Here are five ways making international friends will change your life for the better:
1. You'll free yourself of irrational fears.
I am very ashamed and simultaneously proud I have the courage to admit that up until about four years ago, I was completely racist toward Muslims.
It wasn’t something I would have ever formally acknowledged because, to be honest, I didn’t realize I was.
I just knew that if I was at an airport, I preferred not sit next to someone wearing a turban and it made me extremely uneasy if I had to board a plane with someone who was wearing a burqa.
Fast-forward to a conversation I was having with my Romanian friend, who moved to the US in her teens: She told me about a Muslim friend she had growing up.
I'll never forget her words or the way I felt when she said, “I just remember sitting in her room, and she was counting down the days until she received her burqa.
To her, it was something she aspired to. The burqa represented an achievement.”
My entire life, I believed the women behind burqas wore them out of fear and inequality. I now know that isn’t true.
This realization changed my life.
2. You'll grow so much as an individual.
Following that conversation, I had my first Muslim roommate.
Still, I was a bit uneasy because everything I had ever known and thought about the Muslim faith was sourced from one day: September 11.
In third grade, I watched America mourn as a country, without even the slightest idea as to how to understand it all.
Retrospectively, I was brainwashed, and it took me over a decade to rid myself of this “fear” of an entire faith, which was ultimately just ignorance.
Moving in with my Muslim roommate proved to be a beautiful exchange of knowledge.
She was from Canada, and I asked her a question I’ve now had answered from people across four different continents, in the exact same way.
I asked, “So, what do you think about Americans?” She said, "You guys are just living in a bubble. You are all just really ignorant." It’s true. Across the world, that is the sentiment.
In America, we argue passionately about issues we don’t understand.
We use stories we heard either in a classroom or in our household to draw conclusions about entire groups of people we’ve never encountered, in countries we’ve never visited and, in most cases, about countries we couldn’t even point out on a map.
I taught my roommate ignorance is sometimes just ignorance, and it has little to do with determining someone’s intelligence.
I taught her that being conservative isn’t necessarily right, it’s just a preference. She re-taught me about the Muslim faith and simultaneously inspired me to reconsider my views.
3. You will suddenly have a desire to travel the world and find yourself.
It sounds crazy — I know — to say you are ready to flee everything you know so you can understand who you are, but it is so true.
I have realized, as a country, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but the United States, but as a person, I am very much against a lot of things I firmly stood for just a few years ago.
Bigger isn’t better, newer isn’t cooler and there is such a thing as too much.
I love that people from France don’t tear down their history to replace it with new, shiny buildings.
I love that Costa Ricans -- “Ticos," as they refer to themselves — genuinely believe in quality of life and will never be governed by a desire for money.
I love that in Switzerland, you can eat cheese every day and never get sick of it because for them, high food quality is a standard, not something you have to seek out.
4. You'll learn history is just a matter of perspective.
Just like every other point of conflict in our lives, there are two sides to every story.
I’ll never forget the time I went on an impromptu date with a German man in New York City.
He was the most beautiful person I had ever laid eyes on, and all I could think to ask him as we sat across the table was “What’s it like being a German? You know, with the history and stuff."
It’s so embarrassing to recount that truth, but that wasn’t even the worst of it.
His response was a stripped-down version of anything I had ever read in all of my studies of the Holocaust.
“This is the first time in a long time that there is pride to be a German again. You have to understand that this man [Hitler] came into our country when everyone was feeling extremely beat up after what happened in World War I. He jumped on a platform and said ‘No, you guys are great, you guys are awesome’ and everyone ignorantly rallied behind him.”
He helped me to understand (which my future travels to European countries would validate) that today, Germans are perceived to be some of the best people in the entire world because of their history.
They have no tolerance for hate of any sort (race, religion, sexual orientation), and they passionately fight against even the slightest indication of inequality within their country.
They aspire to the highest educational achievements because they learned the harshest lesson of what true ignorance can cause.
At one point, my closest girlfriend, a Jewish American 21-year-old, was genuinely surprised and very relieved to learn Germans today do not hate Jewish people.
I responded kindly, and I told her when I attended her Passover seder, I was genuinely shocked and relieved to see she and her family did not hate black people or put me at a segregated table. I think she got the point.
Human beings can do awful things to one another. We are seeing it today; we saw it yesterday, and we will see it tomorrow.
If current generations were consistently judged by what their country’s ancestors did, none of us would be free from judgment. Treat every person as an individual and your life will be so much richer.
5. You'll develop wisdom and pursue knowledge.
Do you remember a few months ago when Kim Kardashian went to the Austrian ball?
Someone at the event came up to her with his face painted black; he said he was Kanye West and said the N-word a few times.
She was completely taken aback and offended, and it was widely described (within American tabloids at least) as a racially motivated act.
I remember reading and thinking to myself, “Wait a minute, this guy is from Austria.
He probably has no idea what the N-word means in the scheme of the American culture because that is our history, not his. It's also used in Kanye’s music.”
Before we jump out of a window and label someone a racist, we should seek to educate and inform said person why what he is doing is considered offensive.
I would be hard-pressed to name even one thing that is offensive to Austrians, so I cannot imagine setting an expectation for them to know what is considered offensive in our culture (particularly as it pertains to the highly debated topic of the usage of the N-word in hip-hop music, and when or how it is or is not acceptable, depending on who is using it).
Every time I travel, I make an effort to understand the histories of the countries I visit.
I am always amazed by how little I previously knew and how easily I may have offended someone if I hadn’t asked the right questions.
I once called my Romanian friend a gypsy (in the true, American-Disney-Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame-Esmerelda essence of the word) and I was shocked she didn’t find that to be endearing.
She then explained to me that growing up in Romania and being taken by a gypsy was a real threat to her family, and she was almost kidnapped by one when she was a toddler.
That spawned an entire discussion about how a lot of the playful cartoon characters and movies I watched as a child impaired my understanding of other cultures.
This same friend later helped me to quiet my sudden rush of anxiety about having lived so many years in the American Bubble.
She informed me that as an American, we are somewhat geographically predisposed to ignorance, so it isn’t entirely our fault.
Think about it: We can hop on a plane for six hours and still be in the US. In continents like Europe, a mere 25 minutes in the air brings you to a different country with different laws and different political issues.
Quite literally, they cannot afford to be ignorant. Everyone there speaks at least two languages, and most people speak upwards of three to four different languages because it is a matter of survival.
Imagine if crossing from New York into Connecticut meant an entirely different language, religion and political setup.
My fault or not, my entire life changed when I consciously decided to be a part of the international community.
Within a year, I learned Spanish, traveled to Croatia, Barcelona, Italy, Spain, London and Costa Rica and changed my everyday communication with the people around me.
Now, I make every effort I can to speak to anyone who has even a remote trace of an accent because I want to learn from him or her.
This week, I spoke to a cab driver from Pakistan who challenged my views on monogamy.
I stopped a delivery guy from Senegal because I wanted to understand what prompted him to move here after 25 years in West Africa.
My local convenience store owner from Iraq broke my heart when he told me what his family was going through overseas.
I am suddenly so attuned to how blessed I am to have been born in America, and I am so incredibly aware of what it means about my responsibility to others who were not.
I feel so empowered by my breakthrough, and I cringe when I think about the people I dated, the friends I held in high regard and where my life could have ended up if I hadn’t realized this.
So, yes, to every single one of you reading this: Before you waste your energy arguing and critiquing every aspect of this article in the comments section, you ought to question whether you, as an individual, are the sum of your own personal experiences or someone else’s.
If it’s the latter, I suggest you make a few international friends and find out whom you really are.