The moments that transcend cultural boundaries: A beautiful paradox

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

When confronting a new culture we are blinded by difference.

Its a fact that not a lot of people like to admit, but lets be real here: When we’re off balance and assaulted from every side by new things, its tempting to huddle with our group of American friends and call it quits. We take shelter in the things we have in common, withdraw, and use our commonalities as a kind of emotional shield. For example, we go shopping at the huge western mall instead of the tiny, cramped middle eastern shops, or buy food at the only European store tucked away behind dusty shop signs and littered streets. Sound familiar? Welcome to the club.

Yet when it seems like a culture is so radically different from our own, there are sobering moments: The starving child on the side of the street, who clearly hasn’t eaten for days, or the fury in a protesters eyes as his friend is beaten by the police. We see these things, and for a moment, our heart stops in our chests.

We get it.

After all day spent confused with the language, frustrated with new customs, and battling to get an understanding of the system, the eyes of a starving man suddenly yanks our privileged selves firmly back down to earth.

What were our problems again? Because next to his life obstacles, ours pale in comparison.

In those moments we see through the cloud of cultural difference and directly to the core of what unites us together as human beings: We all strive to put food on the table for our families, sacrifice for our freedom, and our children all laugh, cry and starve in the same language.

And in a beautiful paradox, as we are blinded by layers of cultural difference, we become sighted by underpinnings of human similarity. We realize that behind all those annoying little things that make our worlds different, we share commonalities that bring us closer together.

It becomes easier to remember that time in the post office, where we waited in line for an hour because nothing worked right, and we started laughing with the lady in front of us about how silly it was. And then we recall the moment of kindness, when we were two pounds short for buying lunch, and the shop owner gave us a huge grin and told us not to worry about it. Or the humor in the salad guy, when he insisted on us teaching him the word for every vegetable in English, and in return he told us the name in Arabic and we laughed at one another’s funny pronunciations.

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” -Rainer Maria Rilke

There may be things we don’t understand about other cultures, but those things are not so different from the ones we have trouble understanding about our own brothers and sisters. If even between the closest human beings there is infinite distance, then between the farthest human beings we face the same infinite void. The beauty comes in that infinity is constant, and thus all humans, no matter their background, face the same challenges in trying to understand one another. Our shared human traits level the playing field.

Coming to love that distance is the challenge. To recognize that there is infinite cultural difference between you and another person, infinite misunderstanding and difference of opinion, and to be able to appreciate and respect them as a person in spite of that can sometimes prove difficult. Being in a foreign country is about striving to have tolerance and compassion in times when most people would crack and lose composure.

There are many things; skin color, language, religion, strange sights and smells, different foods, different customs; that divide us. There are times when these things are overwhelming and we are forced to reach out for the stranger next to us for balance. Yet the saving grace is when we discover those very strangers are fundamentally the same as ourselves – they have the same strengths and flaws, joys and fears, and they understand our emotion whether or not we’re speaking the same language.

So yes, traveling is a brutality, and it forces us to trust strangers and knocks us off balance.

But it only stays a brutality if we refuse to see beyond the things that divide us and take solace in the ones that unite us as human beings.

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Filed under middle east, Winnie in Egypt

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