People are the same everywhere. Our cultures are different, our skin color, our clothes…but at the end of the day, everyone wants to feel secure, have a roof over their head, food on the table, an education for their children, connections with friends and family. What’s great about travel is the opportunity it affords to observe how other people strive towards these same end results. The way they lead their lives, how they treat those around them, the importance (or not) of family and community. Travel provides a measuring stick against which you can assess your values and ideals.
You can become a different person in the context of a place. At the university and at Thuan An, the students bowed to me in customary respect as we passed in the halls, and I suddenly felt much older than my years. In the US, my 5’7″ frame is ordinary, but here, I am a giant. I have to watch my head as I walk beneath market umbrellas and the canopies hanging over merchant stalls.
Travel leads you to think about what your life would be like if you lived in this place. Would I be unfazed by the relentless stream of motorbikes as I crossed the street? Would I be sitting on some tiny stool or plastic chair along with my family on the sidewalk during the daily lunch respite? It is interesting to think that the initial course of our lives is very much affected by things we don’t control. Where we are born. Who our parents are. Our social economic status. Our talents. Our disabilities. All of these set your course.
In Asia, I am reminded again by the fact that so much of the world scraps by for a living. In the US, steady jobs and regular paychecks are relatively common. There are 401Ks and IRAs to safeguard your retirement. Here, things are different. You’ve got impromptu taxis in the way of motorbikers, kids who will shine your shoes, tiny old women wandering the streets selling food from bananas to waffles. People get creative to make a buck. I’m reminded of last year in Vietnam when I passed by a golf course that sat across the street from a very poor neighborhood. The local kids collected way-laid golf balls from the garbage dump and bushes that surrounded the high walls of the lush green course. They cleaned them up and sold the balls back to the golfers. A friend of mine told me about unofficial scrap peddlers in Shanghai who collect scrap for money, and in the process, keep the city clear of trash. It is amazing – the human fortitude to survive.
In this environment, communication is essential. There’s no email or website to promote your product or service. If you want business, you have to market yourself. Kids with hearing loss in developing countries who don’t have good language skills face some really tough odds for leading independent lives. What’s frustrating is that this doesn’t have to be the case. Hearing loss can be overcome and language can be acquired. What’s needed is better technology, and more education and training to produce more and better teachers. That combination, in turn, will give more of these kids a chance at success.
Life. We can’t change the hand we’re dealt. What we can do though is help each other make the best of what we’ve got.