Mehdi came here from Ireland, originally from Pakistan. He spoke basically flawless English and was consequently one of the least interesting kids in our entire grade.

I'd transferred into my current science class from the Special Education program the school had decided to place me in, so I didn't have a lab partner, and we got assigned together. This was not a big deal. The world is not such a big place as it once was, and thousands of miles of cultural differences seemed to turn out to be essentially moot. We pretty much got along great, when he wasn't copying my work. He's still a little lazy.

It actually took until high school for anybody to realize that he was a Muslim, not that we gave a damn. We were interested that he had to leave classes to pray, something that nobody had ever managed to pick up on until we asked him if he did. Our World History teacher asked him to recreate a call-to-prayer for our unit on Eastern religion.

Mehdi was basically an all-American kid, regaling us with tales of nude beaches in Australia and cheating on tests. Basically the same as the rest of us, but a little more well-traveled and a little more experienced in the ways of the rest of the earth.

I still sat next to him every day in World History. One day there was a debate on gay rights, with us liberals slamming the views of the handful of class Republicans. (This is Massachusetts, not to mention teenagers, so there's only a handful.) Gay marriage was a big topic, nothing out of the ordinary for a high school debate. Then Mehdi started talking.

"Wait a minute, guys, there's something I don't understand here. I mean, what you're saying makes sense, but aren't there scientists working on a cure for homosexuality?"

We all stared dumbfounded. Even the conservative hard-liners looked appalled. What did he say? This was the stuff of bad movies and the Middle East, not our Mehdi. I mean, the kid hadn't been east of the Baltics since he was eight years old or so. How did he build these core beliefs?

He backed down later, in the face of massive outcry from everybody in the class. To this day it's the most vivid memory anyone associates with him; they don't hold it against him, but it's a huge reminder of how different the rest of the world is from us.

Hell, the other example was just yesterday. Somebody pointed out the strict religious segregation of the school debate team. In jest, of course -- the teams have two members each; one happens to be entirely Jewish and the other happens to be entirely Catholic.

"Except for Anna," somebody said, referring to Anna Chan, a third-generation Chinese girl in our class.

My friend chimed in. "Hey, what is Anna, anyway?"

Anna turned around and looked mystified. "I'm a Buddhist."

I practically choked on a roll. "What, really?"

Anna: (confused) "Yeah..."

My friends were equally surprised, and said things like "Wow, that's cool." She's a complete relic out here in the suburbs. To us Buddhism means crazy fifteenth-century monks and Richard Gere, not somebody that we hang out with on a daily basis.

This is still a closed culture, when you think about it. Western civilization was built on a Catholic or Protestant hierarchy, depending on where you lived, and little room for deviance existed until the latter half of the 20th century. It's amazing what tiny part of these completely foreign cultures has been absorbed into our own, even after all this time.

It's not really a small world, after all. I guess that's the lesson.

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