A New Core Anchor for a Different Voice: Connection
I had two more cross-cultural educational experiences prior to the start of class in Bali. The first occurred when on my way to a seminar on behavioral medicine in Singapore, I got lost. My phone was not working and I became anxious I was going to be late. Somewhat frantic, I found someone on the street who spoke English. I asked them for directions. Not only did this kind, elderly gentleman give me directions, but he insisted on walking me all the way to the office building where the class was being held. He then insisted on using his own cell phone to call the office and make certain they let me into the building! Again, I felt grateful and valued, but with shame remembered times when people on the streets in Boston had asked me for directions and I had ignored them, not wanting to be late for something in my own life I deemed more important than offering help. I had been too busy to be kind.
The second experience occurred when I shared with Mirasol, a female classmate from Jakarta, by way of the Philippines, that I was feeling frightened about arriving in Bali and taking a cab to the conference. I worried no driver would speak English and I would get lost. It seemed all my anxiety about traveling alone was focused on the idea of being lost and unable to find my way back to familiar faces. I was embarrassed about my feelings. I was a seasoned, worldly traveler. I knew I was being irrational. What was different is that in the past, I had always traveled with a close friend or family member.
The idea of being alone and disconnected had taken on a life of its own. I made fun of my anxiety to Mirasol, but rather than laugh along with me, she took my needs very seriously. It was very important to her that I feel safe in her country. She went to the airport in Denpasar, traced the steps from my arrival gate to the taxi pick-up point and recorded the route. She then sent me the video, so I would be familiar with the route and could easily find my way. She then sent a driver to the airport to fetch me! It didn’t really matter that she must have known my fears were unfounded—the airport was small and everyone working there seemed to speak English and the signs were all very clear. I would have been fine. But what mattered to Mirasol was that while I was a guest in her country, she wanted me to feel safe and secure. I will always be touched by her kindness.
These experiences affected me profoundly. During my time in Southeast Asia, I was treated politely and with kindness. I felt loved and nurtured. As the days progressed, I became deeply happy. I felt connected to other people and the world around me. Life felt meaningful. Although I consider myself to have a happy life in the United States (I have a loving husband, children, family, friends and meaningful work) when I return to the USA from overseas, particularly from a non-Western country, I find I am quite depressed for a number of weeks; I experience a spiritual emptiness here. Americans work too much, most people seem to be overly busy and stressed. People don’t spend much time together and often live far from family. Many of us do not have a sense of community. In the USA, I do not experience the kindness and caring I experienced in Southeast Asia on a day- to -day basis. What is missing here is a deep, communal connection. Instead, what I experience is pervasive cultural alienation.
My experiences overseas have caused me to reevaluate my own behaviors and priorities. I am more aware of how I treat foreign travelers. I want to reciprocate the kindnesses I experienced in Singapore and Bali. I pick people up at the airport and invite them to my home. I want them to know they are my honored guest. I take the time to connect and continue to build my international community. As my Chinese-Singaporean classmate Eliza put it “I think, Suzanne, you might have an Asian heart.” I hope so.