Stolen from a book title by my favorite Indonesian author, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the title of this blog post captures the essence of what I consider my life personal statement, to be a child of all nations. I consider the entire world as a classroom and every culture a teacher. Since I have not had the privilege of traveling to very many places, books are my gateway to the world. I fight against the pull of insularity, with its ease and comfort, and I consider those who intentionally cross national and cultural barriers to widen their perspective as heroes.
My modern-day hero in this regard is Rory Stewart, a British author and Member of Parliament, who walked across Afghanistan in early 2002 and recorded his journey in the book Places in Between. He has also written two other books about his year working in Iraq and his analysis on political interventions in conflict regions, which are both on my reading list.
What I love about Places in Between is that it’s written in a factual way, detailing the day-to-day events during his journey without much commentary or analysis of the individuals and society he encountered. He meets individuals who are devious, truly honest, and a thousand shades in between, but he never passes a character judgment categorically on the entire society: the Afghans are such and such.
I firmly believe that in cross-cultural experiences, one should first and foremost take the position of an observer, and use wonder rather than critical thinking as the foundation of the encounter. Respecting the other culture’s dignity is paramount. Questions should be motivated by curiosity rather than criticism, and one should wait a great, great while before coming to a conclusion about a group of people and saying “The [insert nation/people] are [insert quality].” In fact, I dare say that kind statement is never true.
In this day and age, I find the sentiments that one location, society, or nation is emphatically superior to another really bothersome, including the times I find myself subscribing to such sentiments. To live is to ever learn, to stretch the boundaries of one’s experience, and to marvel at the complexity that is our human experience.
*A book I’m currently reading, which I’ll review soon, prompts this rather abstract entry, even though I’ve always held the aforementioned views. This entry also marks the beginning of me delving deeper into another side interest of mine: international affairs and women issues.
**Update (06/30/2012): Please find the review of the book I mentioned here.
There is a quiet place, carved in neither space nor time, where two worlds meet and two beings linger. Two diametrically opposed persons, one is love and the other selfish. Yet in this quiet place, there is perfect comfort and complete acceptance.
I seem to know of this quiet place as prayer. As if encircled by a wall of light, this personal meeting with a very special Being is where I feel the safest, more at home than any house, warmer than any embrace, more secure than any guard.
My heart may wander to seek many things, carried away in excitement over the pursuit of dreams. But at the end of the day, I return to this quiet place and I am at home.
Recently, I had the awesome privilege of meeting a brilliant educator from Indonesia, who, for me, was the best question-answerer I’ve ever met. He sat on a panel discussion, and the way he answered questions was just so… illuminating… that it got me asking, what was it about the way he responded that made him shine brighter than the other panelists? Because whatever it was, I want to learn it.
There’s no doubt that the panelists who did better than the others gave much more than good answers. They spoke with their hearts and with passion; they seemed like they believed every word they said. This, which in and of itself was very crucial, was a given. Yet there seemed to be more than just being passionate.
I’m sure that there is no simplistic answer to this question, but after a few days of reflection, I think I have a few guesses. It seemed to me there were three things that made certain answers very impactful for me:
1. Illuminate the context of the question.
The first thing he did before answering the question was to give the background and context of the question. Instead of giving the right answer directly, he would guide you to think correctly about that question you just asked. Every question comes with certain presumptions, so before he answered them, he made sure everyone was on the same page, not by saying “are we on the same page?” explicitly, but by tactfully giving more information on the context of the problem. Thus, before you get your answers, you are already more knowledgeable than before.
2. Answer the question right on.
It may seem obvious, but I was surprised at how few actually do this straightforward thing when someone asked a question: answer it. Most of the times, either we skirt around issues, or give canned answers. It is a hard thing to answer questions sincerely, and to hit it on the spot. Hence, we often ask, “Did I answer your question?” Not once did he do this.
3. Give ‘em some more.
Then, after all of that was done, he gave extra bits of information or hints at what you should think about next. The questioner then was left with utter satisfaction, plus some food for thought.
Seriously, I was marveled. I got the chance to speak with him one on one too, and when I asked him about what steps should I do if I was planning to move back to Indonesia, he actually answered my questions with specifics and practical advice. NOBODY has ever done that before.
Sometimes in a young person’s life, or in anyone’s life for that matter, he/she just needs answers. Plain answers, without rhetoric or telling me I have to do more research, that would not only make me less lost, but would give me absolute clarity.
Add to this mastery of answering questions kindness, generosity, courtesy, and approachability, what you have is true charisma and influence. I’m meeting more and more people of this kind these days, and really, the world is a better place because of them. I would love to be this kind of person one day. But in the mean time, I’ll just enjoy marveling over these fascinating people.