It was over 5 years ago that we last spent time in Indonesia. We only had one son at the time and flew in on Malaysia Air, living it up in business class thanks to 700,000 frequent flyer miles provided by my sister (yes, I do havethe world’s greatest sister so don’t be jealous). We arrived in Jakarta and made our way through customs and then met up with my wife’s parents in the terminal. We loaded up my in-laws car with the luggage and headed out the gates of the airport for the long drive to Bandung.
But on our way out we encountered a major snarl of traffic. Cars were backed up throughout the entire airport. We sat for a good 20 minutes not moving an inch. Finally an attendant walked by and my father-in-law inquired as to what was going on. According to the attendant there was an American who was refusing to pay the toll. Apparently he had come in to pick up a passenger, never parked (he had just rolled through the passenger drop off zone) and didn’t feel he should have to pay the toll since he hadn’t parked. So he sat in his car at the gate, refusing to pay and backing traffic up throughout the entire airport.
As we approached the other toll gates that were open we saw him smugly sitting in his car with his arms crossed defiantly over his chest. So how much was he refusing to pay? 50 cents! Yup, 50 lousy cents! This guy had disrupted an entire airport and made a fool of himself by his refusal to follow the rules of his host country and show a bit of respect.
I’ve thought a lot about this incident over the years. It’s actually bothered me quite a bit. You see I often wonder if I have those same tendencies to feel and act like I am superior to others. Maybe not in the arrogant over the top way that this character acted but in more subtle ways that I think end up holding me back and taking away from the experience of being in another culture.
Ethnocentrism [eth-noh-sen-triz-uh m] the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all others and is the standard by which all other cultures should be measured.
When I think back to my time in Indonesia I realize that in many circumstances I had ethnocentric thoughts. I think it is easy to do when presented with something that is foreign from what we know and from what we’ve grown up knowing. Maybe it’s a defensive mechanism that allows us to cope. Maybe the truth is that we cannot escape that mode of thinking. Maybe thinking that way is actually good.
I mean when you think about it, how can we define our place in the world without a baseline to compare it with? We all grow up learning and knowing certain truths (at least truth from our perspective) and these become the foundation which we use to gauge and measure the rest of the world.
It’s important to have pride in your culture. It brings about solidarity and a sense of belonging which is something we all seek. But it can be a double-edged sword because it can also be divisive and cause us to make assumptions and premature judgments.
“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
When I travel I like to have a completely open mind which I feel allows me to really experience the culture and situations that I am in. This doesn’t mean that I forget about where I came from or my own belief systems but it does mean that I try to not jump to conclusions too quickly. Where things go bad is when we allow ethnocentric thinking to dictate and direct our actions; like the ugly American who didn’t want to pay the toll. I think we really lose out on the experience when we choose to be rigid in our beliefs rather than fluid. Part of the human experience is learning and growing and changing and dare I say evolving into the person we were meant to be. One can’t do that by not embracing other cultures and ways of doing things. Of course the challenge comes when our morality is imposed upon by the cultural behaviors of others. I would argue that it is these affronts to our moral beliefs that are the most difficult to overcome. But I believe we can still show respect for the beliefs and practices of others while maintaining our own beliefs and morality but if I am going to be honest I have to admit that there are times when I have trouble working this out in my own mind. It’s easy to be judgmental. It’s more difficult to be open minded.
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” ~ Walt Streightiff
As a father I love watching my kids experience things for the first time. They have no expectations, no preconceived notions of what to expect. They view the world with the innocent eyes of a child and are open to everything that doesn’t scare them. When we spent 2 months in Indonesia my son made friends with some local kids. They didn’t speak the same language but they had a blast playing anyway. As adults we seem to have lost that innocence and instead look at the world through a filter and often that filter is often clogged with all kinds of crap.
The more I have traveled the world the more I have come to realize that people are the same wherever you go. It doesn’t matter whether I am in Oregon or Yogyakarta Indonesia, the desires, the needs, the fears, the pain, the aspirations and dreams of people are similar. Parents in Indonesia want the same things for their kids that I want for mine.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain
How does all this apply to taking a sabbatical? I think taking a sabbatical or experiencing an International adventure is the best thing one can do to overcome the tendency to judge others. Like Mark Twain alludes to in his quote above, we cannot acquire the ability to empathize with the plight of others until we experience another culture for ourself. My first overseas adventure had a very profound effect on me. It changed me in many ways. In my experience these changes could never had occurred had I not stepped out side my comfort zone and the borders of my own country.
So, on that note as we embark on this sabbatical journey I want to constantly remind myself to open my eyes and my heart to new experiences, to step up to the challenges that may come my way and above all else be kind. I never want to be known as the Ugly American.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” ~ Seneca
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