*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Shannon Malia Heil who writes about recognizing the universality of hard and beautiful people.


We were leaving the museum, laughing and holding hands and skipping. My three young children clung to my legs as I unlocked the car and started the (seriously) 10-minute process of loading them in. That’s when I notice the other car–getting ready to back into me and my family.

Maybe it was not culturally normal and so further exposed me as a foreigner, but I raised my arms and my voice. Both passenger-side doors were opened into the parking space. The four of us were standing in the parking space. And this car was backing into that same parking space. My eyes swept the parking lot and saw maybe 50 empty spaces, but this car wanted this space right in front of the elevator.

My family wasn’t moving, so the passenger from the car got out and started to “help” me. Without looking me in the eye, she actually shut one of my car doors and tried to shuffle me out of the way. Infuriated, I spoke up, but it did no good. Gone were the giggling voices of my children as I almost threw them into their seats to save their lives.

Well, it wasn’t that dramatic, but I felt my face grow hot and my hands shake. I felt my teeth grit and my heart beat to the rhythm of war drums.

This culture! This selfish culture! my brain ticked away.

Then: No, that was rude. Sometimes rudeness isn’t cultural. It’s just rudeness.

And I realized that people are people everywhere.

The thought played on repeat in my calming-down mind, and memories came flooding in as the dam of stereotypes collapsed.

A student’s face, wrapped graciously in a hijab, smiling at me as she brought me a gift;

the side-glancing scheming of the bank teller who withheld 20 dinars from our withdrawal;

the stoic but unimposing marhaba of our bus driver each morning;

the unashamed, worshipful, and spirit-stirring sound of hymns in Arabic–

these wash away my blanket memory of Bahrain and replace it with people.

People are sweet. People are selfish. People are indifferent. People are passionate.

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Our favorite fruit vendor, inquiring tenderly about my growing unborn, over an exchange of sour mango;

the harsh handover of fare after a dishonest taxi experience, then stranded;

smiles over shared soup with our language teacher;

polite wais to the building shrine, the beggar beside the businessman–

these spill over my warm recollection of Thailand and replace it with people.

People are caring. People are thoughtless. People are personable. People are detached.

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The grandmother who cradled my sleeping daughter on her lap for the hour-long bus ride home;

the teenager who took the last spot on the elevator, leaving us with our stroller to wait;

the store owner who made plastic raincoats for my kids during the sudden downpour;

and yes, the couple who pushed us aside to park in their choice spot–

these ripple through my stubborn perspective of Korea and replace it with people.

People are giving. People are pushy. People are kind. People are rude.


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And me–I am an individual too, one that doesn’t have to play into the stereotypes of my culture, one that doesn’t have to label a bad experience as representative, one that can combine the good and the lovely and the sweet gathered from people here, people there, people everywhere.


maliaMalia lives in Seoul but her home is with her husband and three children–traveling to and from places and in and out of books. Blending the cultures of her life, she dances hula, eats pancit, says “yalla,” and bows her thanks. She writes more about family, faith, and culture on her blog At Home Abroad.