I’ve learned a lot of lessons from global travel – big and small, significant and superficial. I’m sure you have, too. As a contributor to ESG, I want to focus on the lessons I’m still learning, the big questions that I’m still exploring and probably always will. What does it mean to be global? Whose global experiences are valued? How do we build walls through fear, misunderstanding, and resistance to learning? How do we connect through curiosity, vulnerability, and respect? And even with the best intentions, we sometimes still fall short...so what happens then?
I was born curious; I’ve always wanted to see the world and meet people from far away. So it’s been a challenge for me to talk to folks who proclaim they do not care about this thing that is so central to my being. A theme that has struck me consistently in conversations with people who don’t want international experiences is this idea that those other countries are too “different.” And that difference somehow is a reason to be uncomfortable, unhappy, or even threatened. Some of these people will never change; to them, the world is a scary place and you should never leave the comfort of your own borders. But for those who show signs of curiosity – hesitance, not hostility – I find one of my strongest messages to share is that people around the world are actually quite familiar.
In February 2009, I was genuinely struck by this fact in rural Na Taer, Laos, when two local teens brought us (me and my now-husband) to the town’s outdoor boxing ring.
My photos: the village of Na Taer (above) and Na Taer Temple (banner), Laos, February 2009
Our last night in the Lao countryside included a Lao boxing match that Keo and Cam from the eco-lodge brought us to. Since you probably have no context for what that’s like, as I did not, I will paint this picture for you. Imagine yourself standing in the middle of an Illinois cornfield. Then take away the corn and replace it with rice paddies and palm trees. Walking along a dirt path, you come upon a fenced-off square area, where the fence is made of a big blue tarp, about ten feet high. There’s an opening in the tent, and near there some people are selling food and running some games for kids. Lots of people who don’t have the money to get in are gathered near the opening of the tarp so maybe they can hear something.
Once we give the doorman our dollar, we enter and see the boxing ring. Around the ring, children as young as 3 are perched up to watch the match. Farthest away from the ring are groups of teenage boys leaning on their motorcycles and pickup trucks. And then the fighters arrive! They are BIG, BAD…eleven year olds? Well, at least no one is going to get too hurt. The match is narrated along with music that is very hard on the ears, and the little boys use kicks and punches to knock each other out. Although I don’t much enjoy watching people punch each other, it was still a really fun experience, and I’m so thankful to Keo and Cam for helping us experience a bit of their world. Our entire time in the area taught me something very interesting. Rural life anywhere is kind of like rural life everywhere. So many times in Laos I was reminded of something I did or saw in rural Kentucky. Of course, a country like Laos has even more poverty than rural America, but the “exotic” images I had of rural life in southeast Asia have been corrected. No place is really exotic. We’re all just people hangin’ out.
So as we start this journey together, wherever you are reading this from, I’m both comforted by our similarities and intrigued by our differences. These are not opposing ideas; they are the ingredients to a life of discovery.