A World Outside Our Own
A World Outside Our Own
I was raised by parents who love to live. One brave thing I took on from my parents is the love of adventure and discovery.
My parents are not afraid of trying new things, doing new things and going to new places. If they decide they want to move to a new country, they are the kinds of people who will uproot everything and pack their bags and go. I never really understood it as a child but I now get it. It is in my blood and the spirit of adventure and discovery soars through my veins.
I had the privilege and opportunity recently to visit China for the first time in my life. It was also my first time in Asia which made it extra special. This trip was supposed to be with two other friends who couldn’t make it in the end. Instead of rescheduling the trip, I decided to go at it alone. That spirit of adventure and discovery would not let me sit China out.
I was raised by parents who love to live. One brave thing I took on from my parents is a love of adventure and discovery. My parents aren’t afraid of trying new things.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the only version of Chinese culture and the Chinese people was what I knew from TV, history class, tourists and shops in the countries I have travelled to in Africa. I think in the back of mind I naturally thought i would not be able to survive. I knew I would love the food and i knew I would enjoy the tourist attractions but I thought I would not survive the trip. Playing into the stereotypes and fear, I thought I would get kidnapped, my organs would be stolen, or I would be trafficked. Legit! I actually thought this. Thankfully none of this happened. In fact, I was in for a treat.
I had this narrow expectation, something close to what I imagine most people who have never travelled to Africa have when they travel to an african country for the first time. Nothing prepared me for the experience I had. At this point I am embarrassed to say that for the first time I saw myself through the lens that I used to see people who do not understand anything about me and apply biases about who I am as an African.
The only version of Chinese culture and the Chinese people was what I knew from TV, history class, tourists and shops in the countries I have travelled to in Africa.
As soon as I arrived at the airport and had to self-register my biometric information I knew I was in for a surprise… self-register my what? I was stunned! I honestly had this sheepish grin from ear to ear as I went through the process. Now I am an innovation junkie and I love systems that make life easier and remove the pain in admin.
My very first experience at the airport totally filled me with awe.
As I stepped through immigration and to my taxi, with mixed feelings of bias and surprise, I got into a taxi and quickly realized that my taxi driver could not read my hotel name in English. But before I got despondent and afraid, he quickly clicked a translation app that translated the hotel name into Chinese! Ah, this was amazing for me. By now you can tell I am not very well travelled. This was the adventure of a lifetime for me. As i spent my 9 days in China, traveling from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou and then back to Beijing, I started to think deeply about the wealth found in learning about other people. Taking time to know and understand how other people function, how and why they are the way they are, how they innovate and embrace differences.
One of the experiences that struck me throughout my journey was how some people in China had never seen a darker skinned person. And so they took videos of me.
One of the experiences that struck me throughout my journey was how some people in China had never seen a darker skinned person; not just darker skinned but brown and almost dark chocolate skin. People would take out their phones and take videos of me and grab the attention of others and point in great surprise. At first I was upset and irritated at the sheer impoliteness of their reaction. Once I kept glaring at someone with a disapproving eye until they stopped taking their video.
I later learnt that the Chinese revere light and almost pale skin and so darker skinned persons are seen as lower in social status. But what surprised them was that I was walking in the sun and not covering my skin so I wouldn’t get dark. I was embracing the sun instead of making sure I don’t get sun burnt. They were surprised by me and i was irritated and surprised by their behavior.
After a while, I decided I would also take out my phone and video anyone who was taking a video of me. This caught people by surprise and after a while became a conversation starter. For those who would pretend to take selfies so they could take a picture of me, I decided to pose and pull funny faces and eventually they would begin to talk and we would ask each other about our lives.
For those who would pretend to take selfies so they could take a picture of me, I decided to pose and pull funny faces. and then eventually we would begin to talk.
This experience allowed me to see that we do not know what we do not know until we not only travel to other worlds physically but also mentally and emotionally. My normal ‘go to’ reaction with uncomfortable situations is to feel threatened and unsettled. A little bit of pride and superiority always creeps in where the mind is filled with bias and ‘othering’. How different however would our lives be if we travelled far out of our bias and discomfort and became brave enough to react differently. The world is not as hostile as we are made to believe, or as we lead ourselves to believe. The world is full of adventure just waiting for us to experience.
Difference is just but a window to innovation and learning. Travel then is not only an act of physically being in a different location but also an experience that includes body, mind and heart. It is a soulful or soul-filled experience.
I know I didn’t spend enough time in China to understand enough about the vast country with its many people, but the experience taught me about more embracing differences in 9 days than I would have known had I not travelled.
This has given me a new perspective on the developmental conundrum of so much Chinese investment and presence in Africa.
We learn and we grow and that is the essence of living and learning in harmony.
All this musing is to say that when we embrace the beauty and splendor of difference, we truly experience what it means to be human. In doing so we embrace ourselves and open the door to understanding human nature. Whether we travel physically or mentally, we exercise discovery and we experience awe. We learn and we grow and that is the essence of living and learning in harmony with all.
— Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor, African Peace Journal