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Discomfort can be good

September 3, 2009

A PLU graduate reflects on his time abroad

I sat in one of my first classes at the University of Westminster in London flummoxed. It was days since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and a European student sitting in the back of the lecture hall raised her hand and put forth to our professor: “What happened in New York and Washington, D.C., is horrible, but didn’t the United States kind of have it coming?”

In hindsight, I chuckle at how stunned and offended I was to hear such a frank assessment. I would have liked to see my face at that moment: wide-eyed, jaw hanging open. At the time I was trying to find my bearings in a foreign land, not to mention totally overmatched in my knowledge of U.S. foreign policy. I was living in an unfamiliar country for the first time, surrounded by people from all over the globe (to illustrate, I shared a flat with a Brit, Jamaican, Japanese and two Chinese students).

I had little conception of the perspectives my peers held toward the United States and, to add complexity to an already green and overwhelmed boy, I was transitioning in the aftermath of Sept. 11. That moment effectively served as my principle moment of ¨culture shock¨ during my study away experience at PLU. London led me to Valencia, Spain, following graduation, which led me to a job with the American Red Cross and a volunteer position with the World Affairs Council of Seattle.

These experiences eventually guided me to India as a consultant on corporate social responsibility for the Confederation of Indian Industry. For my part, the impact of living overseas has been most profoundly felt in the recognition that my life – along with its achievements, disappointments and every day challenges – forms but a small drop in the ocean of humanity.

My time overseas has invariably altered my constitution, leading me to redefine success and failure, distinguish my genuine needs from wants, and identify the liberties I so freely enjoy and often take for granted. Possibly the most cherished takeaway I can claim is an enhanced capacity to empathize.

By subjecting myself to a wider array of novel human experiences, different standards of living, lifestyles, events, emotions and perspectives, I have increased my chances of understanding the joys and hardships experienced by others throughout the world. This will inherently lead me not only toward being a more effective professional, but also a more complete human being.

Most people who travel to a foreign country inevitably have a striking moment during that first trip such as my own, where they abruptly recognize the differences between their new locale and their homeland. No matter how it occurs, it serves as the principle moment, one of hundreds or thousands to come, which begin to influence and shape who you are, whom you will become and most importantly, how that changing person will interact with the world.

A friend remarked while visiting me in India that I don’t wear the same rose-colored glasses anymore. His observation may be true. A certain harsh reality settles in after seeing dire poverty and brutal social inequity first hand, knowing that there are individuals who take advantage of these situations at others expense and my own seemingly helplessness in the face of it all.

But what these experiences have provided is the opportunity to connect in a deep, meaningful way with people from every corner of the world, all having walked varied paths in life and shared different stories. I have been forced to take a deeper, nuanced view of humanity. Nothing embodies this truth more than the family who lived down the path from my apartment in Arjun Negar, one of New Delhi’s numerous poor, densely packed communities. It is a fairly typical Delhi neighborhood. The narrow, dirt roads bustle with motorcycle and foot traffic about 20 hours a day and you can find just about anything you need at its countless little family-run shops. This family would have me over for chai whenever I was willing to stop by for a few minutes and chat.

The father was a driver, or chauffeur, with a big grin, amiable nature, a slight frame and questionable drinking habits. The mother was extremely reserved and said little. His two sons were also drivers. His lone daughter was 15-years-old, gifted with an infectious smile and a contagious spirit, but had not been in school for a couple of years. She often made and served the chai I would share with her father. Her father explained to me she had been taken out of school because there was no need for her to attend anymore.

It is not difficult to read about the challenges facing Indians today: a stagnant literacy rate, deficient infrastructure, environmental degradation, poor sanitation, malnourishment, repression of its women and a domineering caste system. It is a much more tangible reality when you are sitting and talking to one of the families where such challenges apply. I cannot fairly describe the humility I often felt talking with my neighbor’s daughter, whose English was the best in the family.

I came to India excited for the prospect of adventure, cultural immersion and professional growth, whereas her avenues for a complete education had already been scuttled during her adolescence without her input. Her life’s path had most likely already been decided by her male elders.

I think of this, and then I think of the day I met with the executive director of an international foundation early on during my time in India to discuss their development priorities. After a congenial conversation, he looked me straight in the eye and said frankly: “Listen, in truth, nothing is going to really change in India until your average Indian, stuck at a traffic light, sees the poor woman on the corner whose naked children are running up to cars and rickshaws begging for food or money, and doesn’t think,At least my children are better off than hers. He wasn’t speaking pessimistically, nor did he come across as an elitist who thought his own people were incapable of compassion or progress. He simply was telling the honest truth as he saw it; a truth that was hard for me to swallow. I wondered how long it took for a society to overcome such repression.

Moreover, I considered that more developed countries like my own may still be guilty of similarly disdainful attitudes. These are but a flash of my own experiences. There are many people I have encountered who have enriched my life in immeasurable ways merely through our simple human connections. The rickshaw wallah who has been driving through the smog-choked streets of Delhi for 15 years, supporting his family of five; a 42 year old Valencian businessman who continues to work on his English one night a week because he knows he will need it increasingly more in the coming years; two Ecuadorian sisters, four years apart, both now single mothers and raising their children with the support of their parents and five siblings.

All of them have provided an insight into a slice of the world I did not know or understand before. My story is not unique. The dynamic evolution of globalization has made this journey increasingly common among both students and working professionals, all the while becoming an essential component to the functioning of the world’s economies. In fact, the number of students studying abroad increased 144 percent between 1995-2005 according to the Institute for International Education.

When I set out for my semester abroad in London during the fall of 2001, I didn’t have the slightest clue that my experience would be the impetus for an adult life focused largely around international affairs and living overseas. My life has been forever altered by that initial experience. A growing number of people, guided by divergent motives and means, are traversing the globe for a wider array of reasons: business meetings, professional advancement, volunteer opportunities, vacations, surgeries, university education – not to mention visiting friends and family. With each experience I have gained slightly more depth and perspective of the world I inhabit. These experiences have also served to shape the person

I am when eventually I resume my life back in the United States. In the end, my journeys amidst the often confusing, beautiful mess of an increasingly globalized world have made me more intrigued by the diversity of humanity and our ways of surviving. While I doubt I’ll ever tire from exploring the differences that exist between groups of people, I am equally inclined to know what bridges our differences. One thing I am sure of – I have seen it in the eyes and felt it in the affection of people from India to Spain and Peru to Tacoma – there is a human spirit that we all share, capable of communicating across language barriers, through the walls of history and demographic division we tend to assume separates us.

Of all the anecdotes and perspective-shifting experiences I came away with from spending time overseas, I am convinced the one most responsible for catalyzing globalization is the power of shared human experience. Not only have most countries found that globalization facilitates their economic growth, but their leaders and ordinary citizens have consistently found friends and partners in different corners of the globe with whom they share common interests and goals.

These human connections have encouraged further investment and cooperation. It is the gift of sharing one’s culture and space, being increasingly experienced by people across our globe that gives me hope. It is this deep, resonating impression on the soul that catches people off guard at first, but which ultimately motivates each of us to continue the invigorating journey of discovering the intricate dimensions of our world.

Joshua Reiman recently began his Master’s degree in Global Communication and International Development at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at