Wednesday, August 8, 2012

You Might Be Surprised At What You Can Learn When You Travel

(I couldn't trace this back to its source.  It's been floating around Facebook.  Let me know if you know its origins.)

Traveling broadens the mind.  It helps you see the world through different eyes.  It gives you the best opportunity to understand other cultures and other ways of life.  Yadda yadda yadda.  Yeah, we know.

What rarely comes up, though, is what it’s like to try to explain your own country to an interested foreigner who might ask a simple question about something he’s heard on the news.

At a dinner with friends during my Paris adventure, Alain turned and asked if I thought President Obama would win the election (quick – can you name the president of France*).  I tried to explain that it would be close because the Republican Party had raised an unfathomable amount of money already for this campaign and weren’t done yet.  He then asked so innocently, “Well, can’t the Democrats just raise more money too?”

Yikes!  How do I explain to someone from a country that has its first round of votes in April, has the presidential election in May, and then a couple of weeks later has a completely new government up and running about the unholy amounts of money involved in a marathon election road that starts two years ahead of the vote.  How much should I say about PACs and Super-PACs, Citizens United, “corporations are people, too,” and that there seems to be up to $6 billion lying around, seemingly unneeded, just to throw away on trying to defeat a political enemy while tens of millions of citizens are un- or under-employed.  “C’est compliqué,” was all I could muster.

And there are some things even harder to put into words.

The day after I returned home, before I had time simply to unpack, a deranged man with orange hair burst into a dark movie theater and shot over 70 people watching a Batman film.  My own son was at the same movie that night.  It could have just as easily been our town, in the theater where my son sat.   The shooter would have taken out more victims if his 100-round magazine on his automatic weapon hadn’t jammed.  Two weeks later another man walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and started firing at anyone who moved.  The most we can assume is that he thought those wearing Sikh turbans were really Muslims.  As if that explains it all.

I don’t know which would be harder to explain to friends outside the U.S. – how easy it is to acquire guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition in this country compared to all other first-tier industrialized nations or how we’ve let intolerance and discrimination get so out of hand.  The same week of the Sikh murders in Wisconsin, a mosque in Joplin, MO (my home state) was burned to the ground.  It was the second attempt at arson.  And a mosque that had called Murfreesboro, TN home for a three decades endured two years of protests, lawsuits, vandalism, attempted bombing, and other obstacles before it was allowed to open the doors of its new building this week.  The Muslim community had faced arguments from “if they build, then more will come – bringing terrorism and their sharia law with them” to “Islam is not a religion” (go here, here, here, and here to watch a 4-part report on this controversy).

Yesterday I rode my bike past a gleaming new middle school going up in my neighborhood, completely wired for the future, with athletic fields, art rooms, modern science labs, and theater space.  I wonder how I would explain to someone from another country that when the school year starts in two weeks a couple of miles away they would find a school with no laptops, out-of-date textbooks, rooms that may not have been painted in twenty years, and drop-out rates of astronomical proportions.  Most days I don’t even understand myself why we continue with an education system that seems to bless my children over the children of parents living around the corner.

Yes, I know that every country can count on all of their fingers and every little piggy on their feet just as many faults in their society as I see in mine.  But that’s another reason traveling – whether across the globe or just to across the 50 states – can enrich us.  While we’re trying to learn about someone else, that person may want to learn about our own small part of the world.  However, when we tell them, they may then ask the more difficult question “Why?”  That’s when the learning really begins.

On a lighter note, how do you explain
this restaurant outside of Natchez, MS?

What’s the most difficult or interesting question anyone has asked you about where you live?  Is there a particular part of your culture that you feel like you’re always having to explain or defend?  Share your travel lessons in the comments box.

I’ve suffered from a blog deficiency since the end of my time in France.  An assortment of issues have stolen my time and writing mojo.  If you left comments on my last couple of posts and I didn't respond, please forgive me.  I have to leave town again this week and next week on family business.  However, I promise to get back into the groove.  There are still more pictures and stories from France to share.  Thanks for hanging in there.
*Francois Hollande, President of France
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