meus intuitus

The Us

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I grew up in the center of the world. To the north was America’s hat. To the south were tacos and drug cartels. In Europe they had wine and odd mores. In Africa were hungry children. If you asked me who lived in other countries, my answer would have spanned “Frenchmen, Mexicans, pickpockets, and poor people.” However, if you were particularly perceptive, you would have noticed that no matter what sounds I made with my mouth, what I was really saying was the Other.

There is a little known definition of the word other, a verb: “To view or treat a person or group of people as intrinsically different and alien to oneself.” As in, “non-English speakers are othered by American society.” Othering is important historically as it is an assumption on which neglect, injustice, and atrocity can be built. It helps us to see humans as less than human, and once dehumanized, people are no longer viewed as having feelings, hopes, and worries of their own.

In these last four years, I have had the enormous privilege of going on three trips abroad: One month in France, two months in Guatemala, and one month in Ghana.

In France I met Isabel. She was an eccentric and introverted 20-something girl from Poland who spoke conversational French. Her language skills helped us greatly when we hitchhiked a few hundreds of miles during our weekends away from research lab duties. Needing no currency except our thumbs and the kindness of strangers, we got rides from raucous grandmothers, young nightclub-goers, and a Yorkshire terrier.

In Guatemala I met Richard. He was an enthusiastic and engaging 17-something audiophile who particularly liked vintage sound systems. We would sit in his room for hours punishing our eardrums with his arrangement of six speakers. He introduced me to a reggae band called SOJA and I introduced him to an electro-swing producer called Parov Stelar.

In Ghana, I met Tom. He was a 29-something physician who studied in Russia and, from his few visits to the states, decided that he “felt most at home in America.” We talked about income inequality in China, his experience of racism in Russia, and what his wife thought about moving to the United States. He told me that his wife was afraid that their daughters would “become like the Kardashians.” At this he confessed, “I want my girls to be the Kardashians.” I sensed that he meant less their spending habits and more the blessing of living in a society so safe and stable that they would be fine even if they were a little oblivious.

For someone who grew up in “enlightened” times, it struck me as odd that I had to spend thousands of privileged dollars flying around the world to appreciate the humanity that inhabits it. It also irked me, after returning, when I turned on the television to see reports from abroad of drug violence, threats of terrorism, and hungry children–the old foundations of my old preconceived notions. Our hysterical media assures us that they are dangerous, our Hollywood assures us that they are strange, and our cultural narratives assure us that we are superior.

However, the reality is that humans around the world are not there for our consumption, our amusement, or for us to paint our stories of altruism and heroism on. Nor are they lurking and waiting for that one chance to murder or kidnap us. What they are doing is fighting against doubts and for dreams similar to the ones we have. They are leading their lives with dignity and as much resolve as they can muster the same way we do. I keep hearing that “the world is a crazy place these days.” It’s not really. It’s statistically safer than at any other time in human history. More importantly, it’s colorful, beautiful, and full of people who will take you into their home for tea, into their car for a lift, or at least point you in the right direction that you can buy some tea yourself.

When we travel, for every cultural difference we observe, we should also take note of something we have in common. The language might be unintelligible, but the way a mother smiles at her baby is the same. There is an enlightenment we have yet to achieve–one where we wake up to our common humanity; where we chuckle at the things that define us, but also smile with a certain knowing at the things that unite us. There is no us and them. There is only us.

Three Kids

Three Kids

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Written by meusintuitus

June 9, 2014 at 9:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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