In a commencement speech years ago, writer David Foster Wallace told the story of two young fish that were out swimming. When an older fish swam by and said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”, one young fish thought for a moment, then said, “What’s water?”
Culture is the water we swim in as people. It’s all around us, but we usually don’t think about it until we leave it — until we become fish out of water, so to speak.
The American Cultures merit badge offers Scouts a fish-out-of-water experience. It encourages them to dive into three cultures (including their own) and learn more about each’s customs, institutions, people and impact on their country.
American Scouter Jon Justine has a unique perspective on the badge. A Christian missionary based in Chiang Rai, Thailand, he has taught the badge both for Troop 711, for which he is Scoutmaster, and at events run by the Far East Council’s Asia South District, where he is district commissioner.
“It’s been a fun merit badge,” he says.
Seek Out Cultural Partners
Troop 711 is chartered to Chiang Rai International Christian School and includes members from an array of countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and, of course, Thailand. But the Scouts are all Christians, making the troop a little less diverse than it might appear to be.
So Justine has organized multi-troop events involving Christians, Muslims and Hindus. At one, an assistant Scoutmaster arranged a visit to a mosque in a nearby town (and served as an English-Thai interpreter) so Scouts could get familiar with an unfamiliar culture.
If everyone in your troop looks, thinks and worships alike, Justine recommends reaching out to people who can provide a different perspective.
“If you’re doing this badge, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and put yourself in a place that’s different than what you’re normally used to,” he says.
Don’t Just Look for Differences
Scouts (and adults) quickly pick up on how cultures differ, but Justine says it’s important to look for similarities as well. For example, the mullah who spoke with his Scouts described how he and the local Christian and Buddhist leaders meet each year to talk about their community’s needs and how the various faith groups can address them.
“There’s 7 billion people around the world, and we have a lot more in common than we have differences,” Justine says. “This badge allows us to embrace those differences in a way that is more healthy.”