This morning, I was reading the global edition of the New York Times on-line, and came across a request for stories or essays that answered the question, “Have you been particularly enlightened, surprised to changed by a travel experience? Why do you travel?” I give my students specific assignments all the time, so I decided to give myself this assignment, and challenged myself to even submit it. The prize is an autographed copy of Paul Theroux’s new book The Tao of Travel.
I don’t really expect to get the autographed book, but I did submit my essay. So here it is.
I travel, and do so with my fourteen-year-old son, because I want him to appreciate the fragility of life, and I do not want him to be afraid of the world. These two goals may seem contradictory, but really they are not. At this moment in history, the world seems to be experiencing more than its fair share of cataclysmic disasters and political upheavals, but natural disasters are always a possibility, and violence and unrest are ever present at some spot on the globe.
We are bombarded with violent images from all over the world. Watching from the comfort of our homes, this coverage not only fuels the fear of “others,” it has the potential to distance us – giving the illusion that these horrific things could happen only to “them.”
In mid December my son and I were in Rome, Italy when Berlusconi narrowly survived a recount vote and the streets erupted into window smashing, car burning protests. Reading about the recent bomb explosion outside of the Jerusalem bus station took on a new sense of relevance given that we had been in and out of that precise bus station numerous times this past January. And, watching the tragedy of the events unfold in Japan, resonated on a different level since we had recently spent an unintended 24 hours in Tokyo having missed our connection in route to China.
Which brings us to our time in the People’s Republic of China, where we find ourselves in the situation of being the “others.” We are here for five and half month while I am teaching at a school in Guangdong Province. Each weekday my son takes a public bus, a fifty-minute ride, to the opposite side of the city to attend a small international school. With rare exception, he is the only Gwei Lo (Cantonese for “ghost person”) on the bus. Having grown up as a fair-haired boy in a small town in Minnesota, his life experience has always been that of being in the majority. Teaching at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, I regularly look out at a sea of Caucasian students often having only one African, Asian, or Latino student in the entire class. Being in the position of being the “other” shakes up your perspective.
I am often reminded of that famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire when Blanche DuBois says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” While traveling together, rarely a day goes by when we have not been dependent on the “kindness of strangers,” and I sincerely hope we will both have the courage, sensitivity and empathy, to step into the role of kind stranger once back on familiar shores.
What is learned through traveling is often learned in hindsight, and we are still very much in the thick of the experience. But I have to believe that travel makes the demarcation between “us” and “them” less rigid. Which brings me back to the fragility of life, or more precisely, the fragility and value of every life. The tsunami that swept over Japan did not distinguish between rich or poor, young or old, Asian or American. Similarly, planes that crash, bombs that go off and cancer that strikes, – all do so with some degree of indiscrimination. I travel, and take my teenage son with me, because it affirms for me that there are good and kind people all over this planet, and not one us holds a guarantee to a long life.