College: Brooklyn College
Awards: Fulbright U.S. Student Program, 2012
Taking Culture at Face Value
Stereotypes, as Gil Agassi sees them, are part of the cultural fabric of a people. “People tend to think that the world they see is objective, that they're seeing the true reality,” says Agassi (Brooklyn College, BS in psychology, 2012). “But we're never seeing true reality. It's always a reality that's influenced by the place you're in and the people you're with.”
Cultures create their own realities, he says. For example, the cultural traditions of China and Judaism, such as respect for education and reverence for traditions and ancestors, intersect at several key points. This led to the traditionally favorable view of the Jew in China, which dates from Silk Road traders going back at least to the Song Dynasty (960-1127).
Agassi explored the story of the Jews in China in an independent research course during his senior year with psychology Professor Elisabeth Brauner. He looked at how Jews achieved almost mythic status in the Chinese cultural mind, even though there never was more than a tiny community of Jewish traders, most likely from India or Persia. They made their home and intermarried in Kaifeng, in China's central province of Henan. Over time, they were deemed ethnically Chinese by the Chinese government. A thousand years later, an exceedingly small number of descendants, who identify themselves as ethnically Jewish, survive in that city.
In the fall, with a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, Agassi will shift his focus to Israel, which he has visited as a tourist. “This is not just teaching English but a cultural exchange,” he says. “I'll be teaching Israelis about American history and doing some volunteer work, so I can reach a broad spectrum of people, and I'll bring understanding back to America about them, as well.”
He anticipates that this experience will more sharply define his plans to become a cultural and a clinical psychologist.
Cultural exchange was a part of Agassi's experience at Brooklyn College. Through organizations like Hillel and the Israel clubs, he helped organize events that helped students – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and others – to better understand Judaism and Jewish thought.
“From what I've learned and experienced, I believe that culture influences the lives of individuals and groups and how they perceive things,” Agassi says. “As a therapist, I can’t impose on a patient my perception of right and wrong; that comes from the culture he or she is from. For example, in Western culture, we promote the individual and independence, while in many parts of the world the group is promoted over the individual. If I'm dealing with a person from another culture, I can't tell them they're too dependent on someone else; for them and their culture, their interdependence is healthy.”
Agassi sees the Fulbright as an extension of that cultural exchange. “I’m now going from my own culture to a Middle Eastern culture in Israel, where people have different attitudes even about everyday interactions. For example, how they greet each other is different. They say ‘salaam’ or ‘shalom,’ which both mean ‘peace,’ as well as ‘hello.’ I think this experience will broaden my perspective,” he says.