My Cross-Cultural Journey
From Montreal to Manipal, we’re all alike.
This article is from the April 2016 edition of the Toastmaster magazine.
In the eight years I’ve been a Toastmaster, I’ve joked more than once that “Toastmasters lets me see the world right here, and I don’t even have to take a ship!” I was raised by the sea, as my family’s work on ships took us from port to port: the Baltic Sea, the Persian Gulf, Nova Scotia’s Atlantic.
Born in Tehran, Iran, I came to live beside the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, Canada. Toastmasters allows me to meet people with vastly different backgrounds, including many who are immigrants like me. I’m a member of Montreal’s McGill Club, which is part of a bilingual division, where French- and English-speaking clubs work together—and our contest days are twice as long.
Last June, I traveled to Manipal, a city in the south of India beside the Arabian Sea. I’m a graduate student working in global health, and I was there for four months to lay the groundwork for a new project. But being 13,000 kilometers (about 8,000 miles) from home, I needed something familiar—a second home. Some people seek comfort in multinational fast food. I went for a less salty, more spicy choice: the Manipal-Udupi Toastmasters. On the rainy afternoon when I visited the club, all my migration anxieties started flooding in. Would I fit in? Would we understand one another? Would the meeting be in a language I could comprehend? I was welcomed with smiling faces and a great introduction by Sridhar Kamath, CC, ALB, club president at the time. The meeting was in English, like almost all clubs in the region, and it proceeded in a familiar way—I really could have been anywhere in the world.
That is, until the impromptu Table Topics session: “What is your best monsoon memory?” I really panicked. Memory? I was literally dripping wet from the first monsoon rains I’d ever witnessed!
But I decided to use an impromptu speech tactic and shift the unfamiliar to the familiar—comparing the experience of the monsoon to memories of ice and hail storms in Canada, which I had in abundance.
At the meeting’s end, I knew this was the perfect place for me. The new-member induction coincided with an installation celebration for new club officers. It wasn’t like any installation I’d experienced before: It was a full celebration of members, with speeches, food, music … and even dancing! There was much to celebrate. The club is relatively new, but like many in the region, it is growing fast—and the air is filled with excitement, energy and passion.
I attended meetings diligently and came out energized and more knowledgeable about both public speaking and India. These well-organized meetings and educational sessions drew Indian Toastmasters from across the state. On occasion I wouldn’t understand a cultural reference—does this popular sport “cricket” involve crickets?—or couldn’t catch a word here and there. And of course others sometimes couldn’t follow my accent, or my hockey jokes just didn’t translate. But rather than create barriers, these were opportunities to speak more clearly, and adjust to the audience—to convey the heart of the message.
At one meeting I spoke about my passion for poetry, and while reciting lines from a poem I saw an audience member silently mouthing the words. She also loved poetry, and gave me recommendations for great Indian works. I’m grateful to have been a member of Manipal-Udupi Toastmasters, my supportive home away from home.
In her poem “Human Family,” the American poet Maya Angelou wrote: In minor ways we differ/ in major we’re the same … We are more alike, my friends/ than we are unalike. Every Toastmaster has different goals and needs, and every club has a different way of doing things. Across continents and oceans, what we share is a deep commitment and passion for building communities and, ultimately, a better world, through better communication.
Marzieh Ghiasi, ACB, ALB, is a member of the McGill Club in Montreal. She is a past division governor and a graduate student in epidemiology, passionate about global health. You can find more about Marzieh at ghiasi.org/writing.