A WISE MANE once said to me, “Perfection is a rare and sporadic event.” For travelers especially, this rings true.
From a traveler’s perspective, every foreign country is a chance for something to go ridiculously, horribly amok.
For example, in Southwest China, where I began my career as a teacher, nothing seemed to work – not traffic, nor washing machines, bank machines, or even the rhythms of night or day.
Even at 3 in the morning someone was always putting up a building or knocking one down, accompanied by the rhythmic beat of karaoke tunes and firecrackers.
I felt like I might die of sleep deprivation, but the constant noise didn’t appear to ruffle the majority of celebratory, happy-go-lucky, ever-industrious Chinese folk.
In Thailand, no matter how dysfunctional things got – whether it be rampant sex tourism, a heat wave, a flood, or a staff of misbehaving English instructors, the general Thai reaction was always “mai pen rai”, or in English, simply, “don’t worry about it.”
As Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” The Thais seemed to feel that the best way to deal with adversity was simply to shrug, smile and carry on.
Stop, Chat, Have Some Tea
Here in India, my biggest complaint is that by Western standards nothing seems to happen quickly. My oh my, how serene Asia seems to be, and how pent up and frustrated are the Westerners!
Indian time to Westerner seems to move at the pace of a clogged coffee machine, gurgling its way to the eventual finish line. Small tasks, such as picking up some fruit at the market or getting a shirt dry-cleaned, take what feels like ten light-years to accomplish.
One reason for this slow pace is the fact that absolutely everyone wants to talk to you: neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and curious locals alike. Talking, in this culture of relaxed extroverts, is an urgent and important matter.
People of all sorts stop you in the street and ask you about your day. They want to know what you are doing, where you are going, what you bought, and whether or not you want to come over for coffee, attend a wedding in Nepal, go ballroom dancing, or just sit in the sun.
As a recovering Type A personality and privacy-obsessed Westerner, for whom everything must be done with great efficiency and individual discretion, this is a difficult situation to accept.
Yet, in its loud, arthritic movements, India is teaching me to appreciate the divine. The divine, unlike perfection, is not so rare or sporadic.
Divinity In Humanity
Divinity is to be in the moment, to see the big picture, to lay back and feel the gloriousness of our daily interactions with people and nature, to ponder the connection of all things and find a place for one’s self within the mystery.
Divinity is simply love for one’s life, for another’s, or for the miraculousness in which the world works, in whatever haphazard way.
I appreciate Indian people in that they are able to more successfully balance “to do” lists with the nurturing of family, friends, and community, in a way that most Westerners can not.
While it is ridiculous to reinforce the cliché that “the East” is somehow inherently “calmer” and “more friendly” or “more spiritual” than the West, or that we are somehow very “different” from each other, certainly there are some variances in cultural values, social approaches and priorities.
When East meets West, the two cultures collide with the force of the Big Bang, and a new world is created. Indians like to know their neighbors, and Westerners like to put up fences. Part of this difference is due to simple demographics, but the overarching fact is that Asian people value relationships in a different way than people in my homeland.
The Purpose Of Life
Relationships within the community, in India, are close to the central purpose of life. In fact, they are the essence of existence, and thus, the essence of the divine.
Here, it is incomprehensible to ignore those around you. It would be like rejecting the possibility of a valued friendship or social connection.
Back home in Canada, we are slower to warm up to others. It’s not that we don’t like friends or neighbors, but that we wish to perform our social interactions on a more individualized level.
At the same time, we have also produced a culture of fear with respect to those we do not know, and our way of dealing with that fear is, unfortunately, contrary to our divine human nature. Fear can prevent us from building alliances of care and love.
If we live next door to a criminal, or someone who instills in us a sense of danger, that is seen as that person’s individual problem. At no point do we act as a community to help this person improve the quality of their life, and therefore, our own.
The offending person is seen as the responsibility of a psychiatrist, the government, or their friends or family, if they are lucky enough to have them.
It Takes A Village
In Asia, people and their problems are seen as things which can be worked through via the community. To be isolated from one’s friends and family is seen as a great tragedy, and a failure of our human potential to maintain important relationships.
I have noticed that even when things go wrong in Asia, problems are mostly taken in stride. People and relationships are not expected to be perfect, but they are expected to be amicable.
This is the lesson that “East” can teach the “West” if we are willing to listen. “The West” has made more progress in nurturing the individual psyche and bill of rights, but it has yet to integrate this respect for individuals within the undeniable whole.
I have now learned that if someone wants to stop us in the street to know our name (or even our personal business), then let them – it might slow us down, but in the long run, it will speed us up in creating the kind of world we want to live in.
Taking The Time To Foster Humanity
Knowing ourselves and our communities, and seeing them in unison, is the first step in fostering humanity, and thus, the divine world spirit.
While the world is full of disaster and grief, it is also full of beauty. Fear, isolation, and rigidity serve no one, and in the midst of chaos, two heads (or 8 billion) are better than one.
Why not allow our international world to simmer with the warmth of our combined strengths?
Instead of trying to convince ourselves that “East” and “West” are as far apart in ideology as they are in geography, we would do better to drop the cultural insecurity and embark on the journey of understanding together.
There is no divide between “East” and “West” except the one we create for ourselves. Our international world is not an excuse to promote ideas of perceived “cultural purity”, but rather an opportunity to know more and share the wonder of divinity together. For both hemispheres, this is a lesson to grow on.
With the goal of divinity, our world might never be perfect, but at least it will be united.