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When I first walked into the International Market grocery store at 42nd and Walnut streets, I was scared. The produce section was stacked with exotic green vegetables and the shelves bulged with food products labeled in alphabets I could not decipher. Someone in a back room was conversing noisily in Hindi. Out of a dozen customers, I was the only white person, and I was beginning to wonder if the scent of curry hanging thickly in the air might singe off all my feeble Caucasian nostril hairs. I was ready to chalk up the fruitless visit to a colossal failure of East-meets-West and hightail it outta there, back into the safety of the American 'hood. I was even longing for the metal bars and chain-locked shopping carts of Thriftway, just one block away. Compared to the Indian grocery store, which felt like a foreign country, West Philly seemed to be, for the first time, my safety zone. I bee-lined for the door when I spotted out of the corner of my eye a culinary delight that transcends borders, the world-wide constant of human epicurean desire -- cookies. Yes, in the international language of junk food, cookies are the Rosetta stone of cuisine, and these treats were yelling my name. As I timidly approached the bakery counter, eyeing the store's array of freshly-made, exotic Indian desserts, the check-out people stopped speaking in Hindi and asked me in perfect English, "Can we help you?" It was then that I was struck dumb by my complete ignorance of Indian culture. I had no clue what those cookies were called. "Can I have two of the brown ones, the roundish things, over... er, under the thing, beside those other ones there?" I said. Three years of Ivy League training in anthropology, the study of world cultures, and I couldn't even buy baked goods from an Indian speaking my native tongue. My 15-minute tryst with diversity at International Market personalized all the problems of multiculturalism. No matter the color of your skin, facing another race or ethnicity is terrifying because it yanks you out of your comfort zone and leaves you feeling confused and downright ignorant. But avoiding the unknown means losing out on all the benefits of a diverse community. Imagine life without the crepe truck. Pretty terrifying, I know. Yet at one point, even the beloved food truck that serves up French-style pancakes was a cultural anomaly at Penn. And now that we know it, we love it. Diversity multiplies choice. And at the most basic level, diversity among humans is the mechanism of progress. Some people insist on being different. Without unique thinkers and doers like Einstein, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Pablo Picasso, where would we be today? These people saw that the world didn't have to be one way, laughed in the face of convention and altered the course of history. The benefits of being exposed to diverse ways of thinking and cultural practices are undeniable. But the challenge we face at Penn is how to maximize the benefits while tearing down the walls that go up as soon as people perceive differences within their ranks. The worst thing we could do is condemn minority students who "self-segregate." Self-segregation occurs naturally everywhere -- musicians hang out with musicians, athletes with athletes, bookworms with bookworms. Preventing students from congregating around racial identifications would deprive them of a crucial support base. Discrimination based on skin color still exists in subtle and overt manifestations. The Daily Pennsylvanian has reported, for instance, that blacks, Hispanics and Asians still feel unwelcome in some Penn Greek houses, performing arts groups and clubs. Our goal should be to reach a point where everyone feels comfortable everywhere. But how do we welcome everyone to the table? The solution depends on every individual -- regardless of skin color -- taking it upon him or herself to confront cultural difference. The fruit of multiculturalism is ripe for the picking. Talk to the exchange student who sits next to you in lecture. Read a minority magazine. Participate in a cultural event that is new and different to you, whether that means buying a ticket to African Rhythms' phenomenal dance show or simply buying cookies in an Indian grocery. Now, I'm a regular at International Market. And not only am I hooked on their cookies, but I've also been sampling their other delicacies, like the spicy bean and tofu mixtures. Trust me, it's good stuff. As soon as we open up to what we don't know, we can begin exploring, sharing and understanding one another.

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