“But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers and daily channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their home lands…Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import – and export – dreams with tenderness.” – Pico Iyer, “Why We Travel”
This quote from an Iyer piece portrays that two-way exchange inherent in simply being exposed to a foreign culture. I wish I had kept this in mind when I was working with my good friend Saad during English lessons at the Health Center last week. Saad’s English is quite good, and, having finished the worksheets with lots of time to spare, we had veered into topics of conversation such as seasons and weather. After explaining to him just how cold it gets in Idaho (“yes, far below 0 degrees Celsius!” to which he replied, “I think I would die!”), I began describing my home, and I drew a map of Washington and Idaho, one I have drawn several times here to show people where we all go to school in relation to where I am from, where my family lives. I drew a line from Moscow to Bellingham and told him that it takes seven hours by car to travel the distance. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “Seven hours!” He tsk tsk-ed in disbelief, and I rode that wave of his intrigue and indicated the distance from Idaho to Wisconsin: “And way over here, we visit my grandparents here each summer. It takes three days by train!”
And then Saad said, “I think that must be very expensive.” And then, he added something along the lines of, “I would like that so much. It is what I call a dream for me to go there, to go to America."
I immediately felt warmth in my face and mentally slapped myself. I am even embarrassed to write about this conversation now. It’s not like I have to shield people from my privilege – it is an understatement to say that the differences in our lifestyles are blatant. Of course it is well known that I can afford many things that Saad cannot. But the fact that I raved about my home and my annual summer trip across the country made it sound so exciting and luxurious, I just felt so stupid for doing that! We then began discussing poverty in the United States and I made sure to mention how many people certainly cannot afford to travel like that. But, as true as that is, it just seemed like a sad attempt at compensating for my mindless rambling, for glorifying my privilege.
Although I don’t necessarily like how we who travel – the privileged – are described as “importers of dreams” (who says my lifestyle is so desirable to be a part of everyone else’s dreams?), I do understand exactly what Iyer means by striving to be tender. To be tender, in this case, is to be mindful. Everyone does dream of bettering their lives, and if I were to describe my life back home as being only wonderful and carefree, I would just perpetuate the myth that everyone’s life would be better if they moved to America, thus strengthening those desires and dreams that come from the media and interactions with other amuzungu.
Not a proud moment for me, but a great lesson in mindfulness. Thanks, Pico, for that poetic reminder.