I was excited when, earlier this year, I was invited to join the editorial team of Voices. I firmly believe that awareness of global music therapy practices greatly enriches our clinical work, theories, and research. In addition, the international essays on Voices help us gain a better understanding of the world views, values, and traditions of different cultures. When I read the many international voices on this forum, I am often reminded of my experiences of coming to the US to study music therapy at Temple University. I was born and raised in Belgium. I had just obtained a Master's in Music Pedagogy when I came to Philadelphia. "Maak je geen zorgen, ma, ik ga er gewoon 2 jaar studeren en dan kom ik terug! Ik zou nooit in Amerika willen blijven wonen!" [Don't worry, mom, I am just going to study there for 2 years and then I will be back! I would never want to stay in America!]. And so here I am, 13 years later, still living in the US, married to the most wonderful man, mother of two precious daughters, and loving my job as the assistant director and researcher at the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center at Temple University.
Although I like to think that I am open-minded, I came to this country with quite some prejudices against Americans- these prejudices, I must add, were based on the stereotypical characteristics that many Europeans ascribe to Americans: (1) they are loud, (2) they are superficial and (3) they thrive on superlatives (e.g. nothing is ever just good, everything is great). As I was sitting on the airplane with my life packed in two suitcases, I was wondering why I was leaving behind my beautiful country, my family and my friends to study in a country with people whose 'main' characteristics (see my prejudices above) I disliked? (Keep on reading, American colleagues, I will come to your defense later on in this column!)
So here I was, living in Philadelphia, and indeed annoyed at many American customs. For example, the fact that people here eat with their fork in their right hand: how impolite! The fact that every sales person asks 'How are you today?', but really isn't interested in hearing how you are doing: how superficial! The fact that pink is for girls and blue is for boys: how sexist! The fact that the phrase "good job!" is used non-stop, even for just average work or effort: how futile! It took me about a year (or was it more?) before I stopped criticizing the American way of life and putting my (Belgian) customs on a pedestal. I began to accept that their way is just another way, not an inferior way of doing things. I was embarrassed both by my own close-mindedness and by the realization of how superficial my own perceptions and judgments had been. I have so many wonderful friends and colleagues here and, no, they are not superficial and loud: they are caring, insightful, and critical. I must admit though that I am still working on adjusting to certain things here. Others, however, I cannot accept or adjust to. For example, the sexualization of young girls by putting them on high heels, dressing them in revealing clothing, and overemphasizing physical attractiveness or the use of demeaning dating language which sexually objectifies women, just to name two.
Last semester I taught a graduate course, Multicultural Music Therapy at Temple University. As I was telling my students that becoming a culturally skilled music therapist is an ongoing, never-ending process, I was often reminded of my personal, and lengthy, acculturation journey. My personal immigration experience has made me very aware of potential cross-cultural issues and conflicts in the therapeutic relationship especially involving immigrant clients. I wanted to emphasize to my students that, of course, every therapeutic encounter is, in essence, a cross-cultural encounter. Therefore, teaching a multicultural music therapy course is much more than teaching students about different ethnic cultures. Moreover, just teaching general information about specific cultures can easily lead to overgeneralization of stereotypical information which, in turn, can greatly hamper the development of a therapeutic relationship. I came to realize that, although learning information about other cultures is a necessary component of multicultural training, the utmost important lesson to teach/learn is that values and customs always have meaning to the person who holds and practices them, no matter whether they make sense to us, the therapists or not. I used to judge a waiter as 'oh so rude' for taking away my plate before the others in my party had finished theirs, a gesture that greatly clashed with the Belgian dining etiquette. But then I was told that taking away an empty plate is a gesture of politeness in this country. Now I dare to get impatient when my empty plate is not being removed fast enough.
Equally important is the awareness of one's own world view with its biases and prejudices. We are all representatives of our own cultural background. Who we are and how we relate to others can either facilitate or inhibit our helpfulness as a music therapist. I smiled and thought 'let's wait and see', when some students at the beginning of the multicultural music therapy course stated that they were raised in an open-minded, non-racist family with exposure to many different cultures (which turned out to mean ethnicities) and, therefore, felt that they had no prejudices against others. The first thing I asked students in this course to do was to engage in an intentional exploration of their cultural heritages in order to bring awareness of their multidimensional identities (i.e., culture, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and level of ability) and how that these have shaped their experiences and interpersonal relationships. Many students had intense emotional reactions to their cultural backgrounds and gained a heightened awareness of how their cultures have impacted their thoughts, actions, perceptions, and belief systems. And yes, even those open-minded, non-racist students turned out to have quite some biases against and discomforts with certain ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, etc.
It was my cultural background that was at the source of my prejudice against Americans. My immigration experience forced me to critically appraise the validity of these biases only to leave me embarrassed by my myopia. If I can lead students to a similar critical appraisal of their values and beliefs, I will have helped them achieve a crucial developmental milestone as music therapists. I would like to conclude with a beautiful song by Youssou N'Dour from his CD Wommat [The guide] as it reminds me how our worldview colors the way we perceive, guide, and judge others. Let's all carry these lyrics with us as we walk with others.
Old Man (Gorgui)
[translation as printed on CD cover]
Old Man said life's unpredictable
Father explain to us
Old main said life's insecure
Father discuss it
Yes I'll explain to you
My son and I
My son was riding on a mule
And I lead the mule
We passed by a village, and the people sitting said
What a rude child with this hot sun
He should've been the one pulling the mule
My son listen there goes one
My son and I
My son got off the mule, I got on the mule
And he led the mule
At the next village we passed
The people sitting there said
What a merciless father
My son listen there goes two
In this world if you do this
They say that
And if you do that
They say we'd rather have this
I know, I know, I know
Now we both got off the mule
And the people in the next village said
Look at these two dummies
My son listen here goes three
Now we both got on the mule
At the next one we passed, the people said
These two are heartless
My son listen there goes four
Stop! Stop! Every time I pass you by
Stop! Stop! Every time I'm ahead of you
You misjudge me
Is what I'm doing better than what you're doing?
Is what you're saying better than what I'm saying?
Bradt, Joke (2007). Check Your Baggage. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colbradt020707