Surprise – there really are differences in the world

[Thoughts on the way the world works, the differences in our ways of life – and the common threads that still weave us together. Also a reflection on having been to Myanmar/Burma just two weeks before Cyclone Nagis devastated the very areas I travelled through. And on swimming the beaches of Thailand that the tsunami hit. Read on…]

In my most recent blog entries, I popped a question repeatedly into my musings: the question of whether the world isn’t quite as different a place as you picture before you go out and actually see it for yourself. My reflection on how growing up I believe I had certain notions of what Asia would be like – or that impoverished nations would be drastically different from the world I know. I think I pictured the Middle East looking like something out of Aladdin, or Mumbai full of dirt-road markets with ancient people selling ancient wares. Without being self-important, I’d say that even before this journey I had a pretty decent world view and didn’t think that those in other countries were altogether completely different. But what I mean is even with what I’d learned growing up, I was still startled by how different my mental expectation of “the east” was from the reality. I was surprised by how skewed my expectation was! And so I started thinking…hmm, is there really such commonality in the human experience that the thread which weaves us all together is tighter than the divisions of language and culture and wealth?

Now, as I’ll go into with my upcoming small reflections on the visits to India and Egypt, I’m finding myself even less settled with this question. Maybe there is more difference than the “westernized” cities of Singapore and Hong Kong were revealing.

In India, I truly experienced people with different ways of life. Cities that, if you put them side-by side to the cities I had since experienced – would stand out as fascinating and other-worldly for their look, their smell, and the way that their people go about their life (such as I’ve never before experienced cows as an actual traffic obstacle!).

A contact of mine who recently did a volunteer program in rural Africa wrote to me concerning my thoughts about the different/similar question…and he said that urban life masks some of the things you might see in more rural areas. Such as the tribal life in Africa he was seeing. He agreed that the in-roads of western culture and modern living are of course being felt everywhere. That no matter what, the world is moving forward and things don’t stay the same forever: i.e. the eastern world is still changing and isn’t the same as it was way back when (isn’t completely still like Aladdin).

So, maybe things were unlike what I expected parts of the world to be like. Definitely there is a great deal of commonality in the human experience: the farmers in Myanmar tending to their families and their livelihood just as Canadian farmer’s do. Ultimately our wishes and desires for our lives are similar, and there is a common humanity throughout the world.

But, I cannot say that we’re all experiencing the same world. Beliefs and perceptions vary, and the way we live out or life is vastly different, as shaped by our surroundings.

In the next few posts I’ll go into some of the fascinating differences in the world, and also reflect briefly on some of the highlights that I saw.

I’ll wrap up this little thought here, and I’m not trying to be lofty in my thinking and I can’t presume that I have the world figured out…not even close: but having been ‘round the world, I am surprised that more than simply seeing the sights, I’ve been learning much more of the overall concept of the world. The understanding of what the various parts of the world are like: what they look like, what the people are like, and what’s going on there.

It’s certainly shrunk the world considerably, and I am finding myself much more acutely aware of it.

And this awareness really hit me these last two days in reading news reports of the cyclone that has hit Myanmar.

I think back to my very first experience when I was little with live foreign news: back when the first Gulf War started, seeing live images on CNN on the Iraqi sky aglow with green streaking missiles. I was never more terrified, but I couldn’t wrap my young mind around what exactly was going on – because I didn’t comprehend what it could possibly be like in that part of the world that seemed so very far away.

Maturing a bit, and growing up as a media student, I admit that I was still a little detached from what was going on in the world. I’d read about things going on in other countries, and took in what I read, and felt for the other parts of the world…but only to a point, because they were different parts of the world and I was removed from them.

Now…that’s changed obviously.

I swam the beaches that were devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. And, a few days after, I discovered that one of the women I was on the beach with actually lost a loved one while on vacation the last time she was in Phuket. She actually experienced first-hand the event that, at the time, seemed “other-worldly” to me. That hit home.

Today, looking at the BBC video from Myanmar of the very streets in Yangoon that I travelled through two weeks ago… now completely decimated by the cyclone… I got goosebumps, and had to stop watching the images on the screen. It hit home.

It hits home because I’m realizing somewhat of an answer to my big question.

The world is different, yes. The experience of life in Myanmar or India is different than my experience growing up in Canada. That’s undeniable.

But our world isn’t that big and dissimilar either. The common theme of the human experience – and the joys of life, and the sorrow of loss…it’s universal.

And now, it’s a little easier to put it in context.

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