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.