Connections and Coincidence: Tomorrow I’m Taking Computers Back to the Third World

In the 90s, a Minnesotan family by the name of Jacobson was in central Tanzania on a mission trip through their Lutheran Church. While there in the empty, hilly, rocky farmland of East Africa, their adolescent son befriended a local boy by the name of Evaristo. The boys stayed friends through their teenage years–whether together or apart. And when Evaristo was 19, the mother and father Jacobson decided to sponsor their son’s friend to come to America and get a college education.

Evaristo worked very hard to catch up to his peers in English and technological skills. He graduated and became a software engineer, which is his profession to this day. Throughout these years, he has also married, had a couple of children, and started a project that would eventually involve me–a secondary school in his home village.

Friday evening, April 24, I stood before 110 people seated around large, round tables filling a ballroom in Edina. They had come out for a benefit dinner to support the school at which I had worked for most of 2014.

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I stood up there as the feature presenter, the volunteer worker who had arrived to this rural African school with suitcases of laptops and was now back to share his experience starting the school’s computer program. The title of my talk was A Year of Connections.

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Hooking the students up with computers, pairing them with a pen pal from Minnesota, seeing electric poles delivered to our previously, off-the-grid village, there were indeed many great connections to share. But I took things one step further. Connections, I said, are just the germination for change. It’s the life that results from the connection that stands out as the miracle.

As I stated this to the audience, I looked to the back–to the Jacobson family. I addressed them as the connection, the spark that made all this possible. I then highlighted all that has been made possible from their son meeting young Evaristo, to lead to the school in Tanzania, and then to this very evening benefit dinner bringing all these people together for a common goal.

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It was a thrill to share my stories and help raise money for the cause I labored at for seven months and for the students and staff at the school with whom I built relationships. Relationships, of course, being the type of connection that matters most. Such connections not only allow for the technical connections of computers and electricity and the physical connections of intercontinental flight; but such modern-day connections are inspired with the goal of being able to have more experiences, connect with others, and build relationships.

It was one such connection–made five years earlier–that has led to some other remarkable life activity that I continue to embark on this week.

***

Five winters ago, I interned at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, MN. On one February day in 2010, they offered me an assignment: go to a school in the Midway neighborhood and speak to them about a field trip they had recently taken.

I pulled my car up to this school, entered the building, and met with Superintendent Mo Chang. She then called in five students. She and them–and about 20 other students and chaperons–had just returned from Thailand to visit the lands from where they (and/or certainly their parents and grandparents) had come. The trip was a homecoming and a chance for Old World and New World Hmong people to come together, for these American students to relate to and experience the ways of life for their fellows across the world.

I wrote the story:

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Almost five years later, October 2014, I had just returned from Africa.

I needed a job, so took to substitute teaching. The day I was allowed to teach, I saw an available half-day, afternoon shift for a school in St. Paul. I thought, “Why not?” I arrived to the school, then to my class, and noticed that almost all the students at the Community School of Excellence were Hmong.

I then went to the office and noticed in the business card holders on the receptionist’s desk the very same card I had collected from Superintendent Chang five years earlier.

Same school, new location.

She didn’t remember me at first when I approached her standing outside her office later that afternoon. Maybe it was my beard. But in seconds, her face lit up with recognition–and then suggestions for more stories I could write for the school.

“Hold on, Mo,” I said. “I’m not with the Pioneer Press. I’m here to teach.”

“Well, we need someone to share the stories of our school,” said the short, middle-aged woman.

We talked in the coming weeks, and they offered me a job as the school’s communications coordinator, social media manager, and English language specialist (proofreader). In our first meeting in her office, Mo brought up the school’s annual Global Connections trip to Southeast Asia and how she’d like someone to go along to document the trip. I knew what she was getting at and became energized with surprise at the prospect of traveling again so soon after just returning from Africa.

“Brandon, are you comfortable with a Third World environment?” asked Mo.

“Have you seen my blog?” I answered with a question.

Fast forward to today, and as I write this I’m counting down the hours to departure. Early tomorrow (Monday) morning, 37 eighth grade students and six of us chaperons are leaving for Thailand. Our main destination will be the rural north and our sister school in the Hmong-populated centers near the city, Chiang Rai. There, we’ll help out at the school, our students will spend school days shadowing their peers, and…

…we’ll deliver laptops.

The Community School of Excellence’s computer club has prepared four computers. These very preparers will be soon be presenters, just as I had been a little over a year ago in a village school in Tanzania.

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Tanzania. Spring 2014

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Computers destined for Thailand, Spring 2015

***

It’s about the coincidence of computers, connecting students, and getting the opportunity to tell the stories from across the world.

It’s about the connections and the remarkability of life as a result of the Jacobson’s meeting young Evaristo 20 years ago and me writing a story for the Pioneer Press five years ago.

We sometimes point out the unfortunate reality that we can’t know the future. But how incredible are our lives because we don’t know how connection and coincidence will manifest! We get to experience these manifestations and await what’s around the next corner.

For the next several Sunday blogs, I’ll be writing about the corners turned in Thailand.

Home and Full-Circle with the Ugandan Father and Sons

 

Woozy and waiting, I stood along the sidewalk outside the Minneapolis airport baggage claim. Soon I saw my friend Casey’s grey SUV approach and roll to a stop.

I rolled my own worn and torn luggage to his car.

“Hey,” I said.

“Welcome home,” he said reassuringly.

Indeed.

In the 24 hours prior, I had flown out of Nairobi, Kenya at 11:30 PM. I sat next to a hefty, middle-aged Belgian military retiree who told me about the Rwandan genocide and how his Rwandan wife had to escape. Eight hours later, I arrived at Belgium, waited a few more hours in the airport talking with a long-haired Jewish guy about Israel and Palestine, and then boarded another eight hour flight to Chicago. I don’t remember who I sat next to on this flight. I think I slept two hours in there.

In giant O’Hare Airport, I had to run (well, jog at least) to my gate to catch my plane to Minneapolis. But the flight was delayed. So I took a minute to soak in the fact that not only was I back in the U.S. after being away for so long. But that I was sitting amongst fellow Minnesotans: a man with a Minnesota Wild hat, a woman on the phone with the familiar accent.

Yep. I’m almost there.

I woke up early the next morning at Casey’s place. I’d be staying with him until I got an apartment. Wide-eyed from jet lag, I took in all the “American-ness” of my room: the soft, comfortable bed, the bookshelf and books, and light fixture overhead.

I heard Casey turn on the TV in the living room. I walked out to CBS This Morning and Charlie Rose’s voice, “And now your world in 90 seconds.” Ebola, Ferguson protests, all that I’d been hearing hints of was now declared in this room on Casey’s huge flatscreen. It was in fact the TV, the furniture, the woodwork of this home–the American-ness of it all–that was the larger declaration of which these news stories were merely a part.

To Casey, this was just another morning before going to his job at the bank. He told me to have a good one and went about his day. I remained in his house continuing to soak, looking at everything, feeling the difference between it and where I had been–and between how I felt now in Casey’s house now vs. how I had felt every other time I’d been here before I went away. Suddenly everything was noteworthy.

There was little motivation to do. It was enough to just be. But I did have one thing to do today: get a phone.

I walked out of Casey’s house in Minneapolis on that fair, cloudy October morning. I walked to the bus stop–something I would ordinarily have seen as a time-consuming means to an end. In my mode, however, the means was as important as the accomplishment, and I took in the clean streets, the cars lining them, the other homes.

I got to a bus stop not really caring where I went. I would have enjoyed taking in most any neighborhood in town. A woman stood there, and I asked her how much the fare was.

“Seventy-five cents for me, but I’m a senior,” she said. I counted my dollar bills exchanged from my Kenyan shillings and figured I’d be okay.

I asked when the next bus came.

“10:16. Hopefully it’s not late,” she said.

It wasn’t. It came at 10:16. Two days before I rode into Kenya from Uganda on a bus that was two hours late and was from another company altogether because my bus had broken down. Then, this new one didn’t have the amenities promised to me but did offer two giant cracks splitting the window near my seat.

I stepped inside the bus in Minneapolis. Known for being used by people in low income brackets, to me this bus was high society. Smooth ride, smooth stops, clear voice overhead.

It’s good to be back.

***

Three weeks later, I had my phone, got work with an area school, and had a car to get there. I bought my brother’s old Pontiac. It needed a wash.

So I went to complete the circle, to put the other bookend on my 8 1/2 months in East Africa, to see a man soon after returning home whom I had first met shorty before departing last January.

I shared two-thirds of this story a couple of weeks ago: I met a older Ugandan man at a car wash in Minneapolis just days before I left for Africa. He told me about his sons in Uganda, neither of whom he had seen in 16 years. He gave me their numbers; I took them uncertain of my chances of actually meeting them.

But I did.

Now back home, I went to wash my car hoping to see the Ugandan dad and share of my visit with his sons.

He was working.

I dropped off my car to the attendants and walked up to the tall, greying man.

“Hello, Yusuph.”

“Brandon!”

I had some pictures for him.

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I also had some footage. But that came two days later.

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On this day, Yusuph and I went to a coffee shop, where I showed him video of his sons’ fish farming operation on Lake Victoria.

He had been in touch with his boys over the phone over the years, but hadn’t seen them.

“Now I know what they are talking about,” he said in discovery of their work. “I never know what they mean when they say they have a cage in the lake.”

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I also showed him a picture of his sister and her family.

For Yusuph it was a reunion of sorts and a thrill that this Minnesotan guy he met at the car wash could actually see his family and return to show and tell about it.

For me, this was the perfect finale to 3/4 of a year spent on an adventure.

I look back and realize this was an adventure defined by the people I met–the way they opened the doors to new experiences, wisdom, and opportunities for service.

I realize I can look back even further and see that this is what shapes all my travel.

I can now see that this is actually what shapes all my life whether I’m on the road or living my regular life back home.

You never know who you’re going to meet, what they can teach you, or where they’ll take you.

In fact, that school I got a job with? They need someone to document their trip to Thailand. I leave April 27.

 

Race as a Factor in Receiving Jobs, Grants, and College Acceptance

If the comments on the Star Tribune are any indicator, there’s something like a 60/40 split of those who congratulate Minnesotan Munira Khalif for her incredible accomplishment of being accepted to all eight Ivy League schools versus those who are claiming her success as a sign of a problem.

Naturally, many don’t want to hear any negativity around such a feat backed by her accomplishments. Others though, have children with resumes just as impressive and so complain because their child didn’t get accepted into one Ivy League school.

Interestingly, both the supporters and naysayers can use Khalif’s acceptance rate as evidence to make their point.

It’s become a back and forth over whether the applicant got into all these schools because of her accomplishments or because of her race. The Star Tribune editorial board responded to those saying the latter by arguing for the former. But we don’t need to debate whether colleges accept based on background and ethnicity–particularly elite private ones. They do.

The conversation should be about the merit of favoring people for such a factor.

***

The idea of helping a historically-disadvantaged group is noble and inescapably messy. Like trying to set age limits on a privilege, you’ll inevitably miss the mark by allowing some the permission who shouldn’t and restrict others who should be able to.

Another factor–often forgotten–is that in a world of finite resources, giving a leg up to a certain group of people requires cutting the legs out from another.

Two weeks ago I applied for a writer’s grant from an area foundation. Right in the middle of the application was this question:

artist of color

Seeing this took the wind out of my sails–quite the opposite reaction of what this foundation was likely going for when offering money to writers. I was discouraged, though, because I knew what this question meant: I was being penalized because of the color of my skin. Never mind my background. Never mind that any number of Asian, black, Middle Eastern, or Latino candidates from privileged families will check “yes” and have a better shot–and perhaps less of a need–for the award than I.

I’m white. Strike one.

Some might say, “Now you know how it feels to be black or brown.” I try to ignore such two-wrongs-make-a-right arguments advocating mistreatment to equal things out. I also thought that if I was anything other than white, that it would cheapen the accomplishment of getting this grant or that scholarship or that job knowing that I was awarded something not because I was the best, but because of a scoring handicap I was deemed to need.

But then a question hit me: Have my own accomplishments always been awarded purely because of my ability?

To the degree that systemic racism is a factor in the U.S. is the degree to which I’ve been able to enjoy such an advantage my whole life.

This realization caused me to look up and stare at the wall for a couple of seconds…

***

I know I walk around in the U.S. with the privilege of being a man rather than a “black man” or an “Asian man.”

I understand and appreciate why scholarships, grants, and government employers show favoritism due to a person’s race.

I guess I just wish we didn’t have to live in a world where such distinctions need to be made. (What exactly is an “artist of color” anyway?) Maybe I want this ideal rather than face the reality of racism. Nor do I understand how anyone who supports the message of MLK can turn around and support such race-favoring initiatives and policy that literally couldn’t be any more contradictory to what he said about judging a man by his character and not his skin color.

But we do live in a world where race is a factor. And by scaling back, I can see that though getting this grant will be tougher, it’s just one opportunity made so. There are countless others I can pursue, including many that will be easier because of my race. Plus, why not choose to be motivated–rather than discouraged–to put together an extra-strong application?

I hope Munira Khalif similarly disregards any naysayers for her accomplishment and is motivated to prove them wrong about her skin color being the predominant factor in her acceptances. I wish her the best. Not that she needs my wishes. From a browse of her bio, she’s done more with her 18 years as I had done with my first 25.

 

My Last Day in Africa

Eight days.

Six cities around North Dakota and Minnesota.

Six awesome audiences with which to present about Africa and China, discuss about the ways of life there and here, and all of it to grow in our understanding.

Thanks again–all who came out and all who offered support–for making my recent book/speaking tour such a wonderful experience.

Now that I’m finished talking about Africa, it’s time I finish writing about it. Today, we wrap up my East Africa blogs with my final stop.

***

Three weeks ago, I shared about meeting the sons of the Ugandan-Minneapolis man. I had met the father in Minneapolis before I left for Tanzania. I had then met his sons eight months later in the mid-sized city of Jinja, Uganda, where they showed me their fish farming operation.

The following day, I hopped on one last tardy, long, bumpy, cramped bus ride–a 12 hour journey from dawn to past dusk into Nairobi.

They tell me we drove right through the region that Barack Obama's dad was from.

They tell me we drove right through the region that Barack Obama’s dad was from.

Picked up by my host, I was driven out to his home 20 minutes outside city center. The next day I would fly home–but that wasn’t until the afternoon. In the morning, my host was eager to take me to the school he had founded in the Kayole slum.

I had met Douglas Monene on that same travel community website, Couchsurfing.

He was a large, muscular man, but though he looked like a rugby player, he was gentle and academic. We hopped in his grey van my final morning in Africa and rode out to Kayole slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

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We arrived to the street his school was on:

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The school was to the left, but to the right was another site: an open pit mine.

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Mine ahead, polluted river below, heavy machinery was off to the right

This scene was significant not just because it was an odd feature to have across the street from a school, but because people lived in the mine to work, and the residents of this literal mining town was where Douglas recruited some of his students.

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Like my rural village school on Tanzania, children in the slums of Nairobi are limited in education due to the need for them to work.

Douglas is working to change that.

He started INGRID Primary School just a few years earlier. He started it privately or else the local children would have no real education options. He takes in the miner kids without charge.

We entered his school.

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INGRID is an acronym.

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I visited the classes of these young Developers.

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The youngest students

And for a few of the classes, I taught a lesson or two.

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After an impromptu math lesson for this class, Douglas took me to the school roof.

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He showed me the chicken coop and described plans for expansion atop the school. He wants to add high school classes. This roof may not look like much, but it offered a perspective of our physical surroundings–as well as on the relative nature of wealth.

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This actually wasn’t garbage strewn across these residents’ adjacent roofs. This was their belongings in storage.

We went back down, and I took a class of 9-10 year olds who impressed the heck out me with their questions.

One boy and I talked like this:

“Can you have guns in America?” he asked in perfect English. (Schools are English medium in Kenya.)

“Yeah, you can,” I said.

“Where do you get them?”

“There are places just for buying guns.”

“Will you get in trouble for shooting someone?”

“Yes, you will.”

“Unless it’s for self defense,” he clarified.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, yes.”

Another girl starting asking about “IC in Hagy.”

I surmised what she may have been referring to, but I didn’t think it was likely she was talking about the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Holland.

She was.

The Kenyan president had been there being questioned about his role in ethnic violence in the country. This topic went above my head, and Douglas happened to step foot into the concrete-walled classroom. So I asked him to come forward to explain it to the girl.

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Not all students were so eager about their education. There are many difficult domestic situations in Kayole. And despite the fact that students can live here at the school–albeit in humble conditions–one may still think that children would favor a sleeping bag and hot meals over a life on the streets. Yet that isn’t always the case.

One missing boy had been retrieved to the school, where Douglas questioned the raggedy, hungry, defeated lad.

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At recess children went outside to play.

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And it was time for me to leave.

not just the school,

not just the city or country,

but Africa.

It was time for me to fly home.

Douglas and I hopped into his van–as did a few of the older students who hadn’t ever seen an airport.

***

We approached Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. We parked, they all walked me to my gate, and we took my final picture in Africa.

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I didn’t even know all their names. Our relationship was but a mere few hours old. Yet it was fitting to part ways with East Africa not just with a goodbye from students (my whole reason to come to Africa was to teach) but to do so after a morning of this unexpected, interactive surprise.

My 8 1/2 months in East Africa was punctuated with such occurrences frequent enough to have me question how much one can pack under the umbrella of coincidence.

From the experiences surrounding the computer program in my Tanzanian village school to the acquisition of electricity in that village to the meeting of other volunteers that I brought out to the school;

From the political rally to the church services to the hospital room to the town jail;

From the medicine man to the Parliament member to the Native American;

From the waterfalls to the white sand beaches to the rock bridges to the hippo, giraffe, and elephant;

From the inner city to the village to the skyscraper to the nightclub;

And within all these settings and experiences were the emotions: the ingredients of life.

From the camaraderie to the loneliness; from the pleasant surprises to the disappointing shocks; from the hectic concerns to the quiet, humble calms; this was eight months in East Africa.

I thank you for following along.

I look forward to sharing it with you when I complete my book.

I look forward to taking you on my next adventure.

For now, we go home next week.

Book Tour Finale: Amazing People and Places Across Minnesota

Last weekend I leapt the Red River from North Dakota to Minnesota to share my experiences from East Africa to China.

Bemidji, Duluth, Brainerd, Cottage Grove: these were the final four destinations of my Life Learned Abroad speaking/book tour, each with their own unique flavor to absorb and remarkable individuals to get to know.

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First up was Bemidji, my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Blackduck, so Bemidji was the “the city” as far as we were concerned, the place to get clothes and cars and see a movie. Last Sunday, though, I was the one showing the video…and photos and sharing stories from across the oceans to familiar faces from over the years.

Along with my supportive family and relatives in attendance, I was touched to see my first grade teacher, Mrs. Stomberg, arrive, as did my childhood dentist, Mr. Bengtson. (Thanks for the smile, Doctor:)

Bemidji Pioneer publisher Dennis Doeden arrived early to help set up and then introduced me to the crowd to get things underway.

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My family and friends leaned forward to hear the stories and chimed in with feedback and questions about the topics arisen–the politics of Tanzania, the education system, and why is Tanzania a poor nation? By the end, at least one audience member, an older woman distant relative of mine, expressed more than gratitude for the presentation. She was inspired to donate $200 to the school at which I worked in Tanzania. I didn’t anticipate raising money, but sometimes such bonuses happen unexpectedly.

***

On Monday I sped along highway 2 to Duluth. The two-and-a-half hour drive was highlighted with surefire signs of northern Minnesota.

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Then as I approached the eastern edge of the state, I entered a city with its own idiosyncratic imagery. The morning after arriving in Duluth, I spent some time soaking in its essence.

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That evening, I was honored to share with Duluthians who came out to the gorgeous and historic Fitger’s theater at the Fitger’s Hotel and Brewery.

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We had in house a middle aged female mission worker who’d been to Tanzania 20(!) times. There was another middle aged lady who, like me, had lived in China for a year. I asked where, she said “Zhuhai, near Macau,” and I stared at her for two seconds as that was the very city in which I had lived as well.

Then we had an older guy in the crowd. He raised his hand during my presentation to clear up a point about Tanzania’s political history. It was 1964 (after Zanzibar joined Tanzania), he said, not 1961 when Tanzania’s current ruling party was formed. He would know; he was from Tanzania.

The next morning, I visited the woman in the audience who’d been to Tanzania so many times. She’s done so because of her mission work. But even when home, her mission continues…at her store downtown.

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Meet Beth. In the early 90s, she started to raise money for micro loans to Tanzanian women. In $50 increments, she gave these women–selling crafts, salt, or food–a jump start. Perhaps most successful was the salt operation, where the men and women in this desolate part of the country could now rent an ox cart to carry 200 pounds of salt to market. These loans were more than advances in pay; they started a small movement of development.

“It was a culture,” Beth said.

Today, Beth still operates her store Touched by Africa (touchedbyafrica.info). Her sights are now set in the Kenyan slum, Kibera, where proceeds from the store go to help a school. Stop by or go to the website to obtain these handcrafted items:

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The women in Africa who created the baskets

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***

Brainerd was next on the docket. This one was a wildcard. I didn’t know what to expect. Brainerd is a smaller city where I knew no one and whose newspaper only recently started featuring my writing.

But lo’ and behold, it ended up offering one my biggest audiences.

I was sitting in the empty conference room at the Northland Arboretum at twenty minutes to showtime wondering if anyone was going to come. Then, a lady of about 80 with a thick accent slowly walked in. “Is this the right place?” said Ingrid from Sweden. She shared that she loves talks about the world, that she recently saw a Somali woman speak at the college.

Then another worldly retired couple waltzed in, followed a father/daughter, followed by another couple, and another. Five minutes to showtime, I was in a quiet room down the hall prepping but distracted by the sounds of the outside door continuing to open to newcomers.

I held back a surprised smile as I entered the full room.

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Brainerdites asked about women’s rights in Tanzania, about differences in culture from one East African country to the other, and about the courses taught at the village school. It felt more like a classroom, and I tried to educate as entertainingly as I could.

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At the end, we took some photos.

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She offered me a baggie of colored glass she makes and sells for charity.

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Vince to my left hosted me in Brainerd. Like his wooden tie? There are more where that came from: www.wmsonfurniture.com He’s a wood worker.

It was an honor to present for such open-minded, inquisitive folks.

***

Finally, on Friday the 2nd, I returned home to the Twin Cities…but the tour wasn’t finished yet. On Saturday, I held my homecoming and final event in Cottage Grove.

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At Park Grove library, I was honored to have old college mates, a former (and a current) boss, current Toastmasters fellows, and some relatives I hadn’t seen in ages fill the seats. They asked questions about the diet in Tanzania, the price of schooling, and origins of the Swahili language.

This latter question was answered succinctly by a special member in the audience, the man whose image also happened to be the first photo in my slideshow:

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He’s the founder of the school at which I taught in Tanzania. His name is Evaristo Sanga.

It was another great event and a fitting finale to the tour.

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***

What began as a tour to share the beauty and life of East Africa and China, ended as a survey of the beautiful scenery, culture, and people of the upper Midwest. Connecting the dots from city to city, I realized just how special these places are and how fortunate I am to get to share my stories with you all.

Gratitude bursts for all who helped: Forum Communications for getting the city newspapers on board, the city newspapers and their staff who helped arrange the stops and promotion, Ron Wacks for professional support, my friend Wone Vang for volunteering her time for the fundraising, all those who chipped in for the fundraiser; my hosts, my family, and of course, the attendees of all six events.

I was nervous to get this tour off the ground. So many “what ifs” and opportunities to back out thinking it would fall flat. I almost arrived late to my first stop in Fargo, but after settling down, that event–and each subsequent one–got easier. By the end, I felt great sharing my writing and stories from across the Atlantic and Pacific. Now that I’m versed in these stories, it’s just a shame that I’m done presenting them!

Well, I’ll share them again when I write my book about Africa, (and you can get my China book on Amazon.) I also hope to use this tour as a springboard for wider audiences and further opportunities to share with others the lessons of Life Learned Abroad.

In the meantime, I encourage you to consider sharing your stories to the people of the upper Midwest by way of Forum Communications’ blogging platform, Area Voices. There are countless stories and voices within the communities I visited. More people should hear what you have to say.

It’s fun to share your voice.

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Book Tour Update: Thank you Fargo and Grand Forks. Minnesota, you’re next.

Every week, I tap, tap, tap away at the letters on my keyboard to share a travel story with readers in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond.

Now I’m spending less time tapping and more time talking (and showing photos and footage). Friday and Saturday, I was honored to share my East African experiences (and China book) with residents of Fargo and Grand Forks.

On Friday, I drove up to Fargo from Minneapolis to kick off the Life Learned Abroad Tour.

I presented at the West Acres Mall.

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By 7:20, a roomful of attendees readied for my presentation of adventure and analysis.

When I asked, they commented on the animated church service I witnessed in Tanzania.

“I think they’re putting on a show,” said one woman.

“You can see that here in America, too,” said an older man.

We talked economic development–and whether it was necessarily “better” to have the latest gadgets.

Overall, though, I showed dozens of photos and some footage to offer an idea of what it was like in this part of the world. I then capped things off with a reading from my book Life Learned Abroad about my year in China from 2010-2011.

Many thanks to the West Acres Mall for the space and the support offered to arrange the space.

Many thanks to the Fargoans who came out on a Friday night (during the hockey games) to listen, watch, ask questions, and engage in an education about their world. These included a pastor who came dressed in a Sudanese shirt from his work there, a professor/researcher of molecular biology and sustainable energy from NDSU, and a college student there for class credit.

Finally, there were the Jensens, the couple who hosted me and who themselves have spent their careers traveling the world working in the energy sector in the developing world.

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Today, Paul Jensen operates Green Ways 2 Go (greenways2go.com), an advisory company working with businesses to help them apply green energy to their operations.

***

The next day, I flew up I29 to Grand Forks.

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The plains of the Midwest: an open, calming landscape that at once makes you want to slow down while flowing by like a river at 83 mph.

No hockey games today (though one attendee proudly wore his UND jersey.)

I presented at The Ember coffee shop, a non-profit effort from Freedom Church.

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Workers are volunteers and the space caters to artists–musicians, painters, authors, and more.

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With desserts/coffee spread, I presented in their event room. Attendees arrived to explore their world and the topics arisen along the way.

They asked great questions.

“How did tribal division affect the health care?” asked one lady.

“I’m not sure,” I said frank and stumped.

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Another question was whether there was separate education facilities for boys and girls at the school I worked at.

This one I could answer. (No, there wasn’t.)

A young man who had taught abroad, a middle-aged woman mission worker, and a middle-aged gent who took a liking to writing himself were some of the attendees.

It was another great event with great people.

North Dakota, it was great spending time with you.

Minnesota, you’re up. Today I’m presenting in Bemidji at the Eagles Club at 2:00pm. Area residents, come for the refreshments–oh, and a chance to learned about and discuss the different cultures on the planet.

Here is the remaining schedule of events:

BEMIDJI – Sunday, March 29 at 2pm
Bemidji Eagles Club, 1270 Neilson Ave SE

DULUTH – Tuesday, March 31 at 7pm
Spirit of The North Theater, 600 E. Superior St.

BRAINERD – Thursday, April 2 at 7pm
Northland Arboretum, 1450 Conservation Drive

COTTAGE GROVE – Saturday, April 4 at 2pm
Park Grove Library, 7900 Hemingway Ave S

 

Hope to see you there.

 

 

Announcement: My ND-MN Book/Speaking Tour Starts this Friday

This Friday, March 27, I’ll be in Fargo. The following day, I’ll be in Grand Forks. And after that, I have four stops around Minnesota: Bemidji, Duluth, Brainerd, and Cottage Grove. Details of the stops are below.

First, a little about these events…

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I spent most of 2014 volunteering at a village school in Tanzania, East Africa.

I stayed in a small room at the school. No plumbing. No regular electricity. I lived as the other teachers and students did. And I taught computers for eight months.

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This was just the start of my experiences.

I would have the chance to leave the village and travel the corners of Tanzania, as well as to other countries in the region.

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And I explored and documented the ways of life I saw each step of the way.

Politics:

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Religion:

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Law and Justice:

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Romance:

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Health care:

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Each of these areas is an opportunity to compare & contrast their ways to ours–and in the process, learn about them, us, and humanity. This is what my book/speaking tour is all about.

For the last year, I’ve been writing about these experiences right here on this blog, which is featured on newspaper websites across North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Now I’m going to share in person that which I’ve been offering on my blog.

These events are a picture/video presentation of the highlights, stories, and the lessons from my time in Africa.

In addition, I’ll share my newly-released book (and multimedia eBook) Life Learned Abroad, a similar documentation and exploration from my previous travel: a year in China.

Books in my room ready for next week's tour

Books in my room ready for this upcoming tour


For this tour, I’ve teamed up with media company Forum Communications–parent company to the newspapers that feature my writing and whose cities are the locations for the events. Starting Friday, I will be sharing Africa and China at these locations and times:

FARGO – Friday, March 27 at 7pm
West Acres Mall Community Room, Lower Level, 3902 13th Ave S

GRAND FORKS – Saturday, March 28 at 2pm
The Ember Coffee Shop, 8 N 3rd St

BEMIDJI – Sunday, March 29 at 2pm
Bemidji Eagles Club, 1270 Neilson Ave SE

DULUTH – Tuesday, March 31 at 7pm
Spirit of The North Theater, 600 E. Superior St.

BRAINERD – Thursday, April 2 at 7pm
Northland Arboretum, 1450 Conservation Drive

COTTAGE GROVE – Saturday, April 4 at 2pm
Park Grove Library, 7900 Hemingway Ave S

*ALL EVENTS ARE FREE OF CHARGE AND REFRESHMENTS ARE PROVIDED.

These will be entertaining, educational, and intriguing looks at distance parts of the world. Students, travelers, and all curious-minded people will enjoy these presentations.

If you’re on Facebook, please RSVP here. Also, follow along the tour as I update over the eight days under the hashtag #LifeLearnedAbroad on Twitter (@brandonferdig) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/bferdig.)

***

I hope to see you as I hit the road and arrive to a city near you.

 

Education is Bigger than Politics (A Lesson from my Year in China)

Having been in China just 10 days, it was funny how the detail of teaching English–my vehicle for coming out to China–became lost on me. But it was no accident. I didn’t want to think too much about it, because honestly, I didn’t think too much of it. Tons of others before me had gone abroad to teach. Plus, how hard could it be? Especially to a bunch of Chinese children who were going to be little soldier students. Thus, leading up to my departure, and despite all the encouragement I had received, I was sheepish about admitting my job. I would respond to others, “That’s right, I’m going to China to write . . . oh, and teach English.”

Skip ahead, and here I was sitting in teacher training in my school in Zhuhai. And it was maybe one whole hour into it, when I realized I had underestimated three things: the difficulty of doing this job well, how important a job it was, and how rewarding this experience would be.

My fellow first-year colleagues and I gathered for training in a classroom that—with the whiteboard, world map, desks, and bulletin board—reminded me of any classroom at most any school back home. I sat in one of the twenty dark blue plastic chairs with attached, dark blue plastic desks. My colleagues included Marilyn, a young woman from The Philippines; Reynold, a fellow American (Oregonian) a couple years younger than I with a medium build, glasses, thinning blonde hair; and then we had a Scotsman, an Englishman, and an Australian woman all ranging from late-twenties to mid-forties.

The Scot, the Englishman, and the Aussie sitting in the lobby awaiting training

The Scot, the Englishman, and the Aussie sitting in the lobby awaiting training

Soon, a middle-aged Iranian man in slacks and a white turtleneck walked into the classroom. He was tall, thin, clean-shaven, and had a receding hairline and smiling face. His name was Navid (sounds like “NahVEED”), and he was the education supervisor at TPR Academy of American English in Zhuhai. TPR is an acronym for Total Physical Response—a system of teaching and learning with physical accompaniment to aid in the process. TPR Academy is an English-learning school that caters to children and adults outside of normal school and work hours.

Navid introduced himself to us and began his lecture.

Soon after, I tuned out.

His opening remarks were about the value and importance of education, that the job we had as educators was not only to impart knowledge but to impart wisdom and morals. He talked about a spiritual education. He talked about being a role model, a nurturer—that parents and teachers share in this responsibility.

Upon hearing this, I slouched down and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.”

You may wonder why, as his statements seem harmless, if not accurate. But I’d heard this rhetoric before—used by groups and administrations back in America to defend their philosophy of education and then to promote their policy.

Apparently voting “no” means you’re against kids. I had grown tired of the propaganda.

Apparently voting “no” means you’re against kids. I had grown tired of the propaganda.

When Navid started talking like “one of them,” my defenses went up. And so it could have gone for the next two hours, myself veiled from truth due to my judgment—just the kind of thing I moved abroad to improve. Thankfully, I didn’t tune him out for long. As he spoke of the upcoming classes, it began to sink in that this job might not be as easy as I had anticipated.

That upcoming Saturday I would have fifteen sets of eyes staring back at me. Imagine that—fifteen little Chinese kids looking up at you, or worse, not looking at you because they’re bored or messing around with one another. Though I assumed they would be good and quiet, I wondered what I’d do if they did get out of line.

Then all the factors to consider when teaching also hit me: some students are louder, some quiet, some smarter, and some simply want to be there more than others. And I would be teaching five different classes—five combinations of all these factors. Oh, and all the names. And how long does fifty minutes in the classroom feel like anyhow?

Nothing like the reality of reality to get you out of the luxury of being an ideologue.

Adding to all this, I had thought that my job would be to simply, well, teach. Navid used the analogy that the teacher is an urn full of water, and it is his or her job to fill all the little urns. “All right,” I thought. I liked this analogy—clear, simple. Problem was, he used this dated idea to contrast how far we’ve come in our understanding of education since the ancient Greeks used this very analogy. Hmmm, seems like my prejudices and ignorance had me behind the times just a titch. So I told myself to be quiet and listen, and from an open mind came open eyes, realizing the fulfillment of what was ahead.

Socrates: filling urns

Socrates: filling urns

Navid went on to promote another idea of education: that inside each student is a pearl. Some are easy to find, easy to shine. Others are not. Our job as teachers was to discover this pearl inside each child and learn how to make it shine. This is what it is to teach—not merely passing knowledge down, but a discovery process, an interaction that should motivate, educate, and help another person grow. Whoa. Once I heard this, it wasn’t just fear of these first classes that got me to focus—it was excitement about getting to participate in this process. In addition, I thought of the character and the skills honed as a result of teaching: creativity, patience, expression, focus, confidence.

Mr. Holland: shining pearls

Mr. Holland: shining pearls

The Greek illustration was powerful for another reason. It revealed that education is something that’s been studied for a long time—well before lobbies and political lawn signs. It revealed to me the importance of this topic. Indeed, what could be more important than how knowledge and wisdom get passed down?

Education is much bigger than politics. I also realized how easy it is to take a side on an issue and then disregard anything that resembles the opposition. Lessons learned. Breakthroughs may be months/years in the making, but they happen in a moment, and I realized what a lucky opportunity I had before me. It was a good thing, too, because I’d need the motivation to get me through the tougher classes and tougher days ahead.

***

This story is an excerpt from my recently-released book – Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China – a chronology of observations, experiences, insights, and photographs living in China from 2010-2011. It is available on Amazon.

 

Connecting a Minnesotan Father to his Ugandan Sons

On January 15, 2014, I was getting my car washed.

It was one of those where you hand the car over to workers, they vacuum it out, it goes through the wash, and then other workers wipe it down and clean the interior.

I was inside paying the Latina cashier when a man walked behind me and said hello to her. As she responded in kind, I turned to glimpse a tall, black man with an eye patch.

Huh.

He walked inside the car wash area, and I asked the lady if he worked there.

He did.

“How did he lose the eye?”

“I’ve never asked. He’s from Uganda,” she offered.

Uganda borders Tanzania. In eight days, I was leaving for a nine-month move to Tanzania and other areas of East Africa–including Uganda. That’s why I was here at the car wash. I was cleaning my car before selling it.

Upon hearing this, the Latina walked out from her cashier’s booth, entered the car wash area, and yelled out to the Ugandan.

“Yusuf!”

He came over, she told him about my plans, and he got excited.

He swiftly walked back to his personal belongings, and delivered an atlas. He paged through to show me where he was from and where his sons still live: Jinga.

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“Can I have their numbers?” I asked, thinking it was a long shot, but that maybe I’d use this connection while I traveled through. It was a long shot this father was thrilled to take. Writing down his sons’ numbers, he said, “This makes me so happy.”

I wasn’t sure why. I think the idea of a local guy connecting with his world was exciting for him.

We snapped a picture with my cell phone, and then took his sons’ numbers and drove off in my clean car.

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***

Eight months later, was in a coffee shop in a shopping mall in Kampala, Uganda. Now in their country with their phone service–but after having grown evermore skeptical at making this connection as the months passed–I made the call.

After a couple of rings, a man picked up.

“Hello.”

“Hi,” I said. “Is this Najiib?”

“Yeah.”

“Hi, uh, my name is Brandon,” I continued sheepishly. “I’m from the U.S., and I met your father.”

“Yes,” he said indicating a lot less surprise than I had anticipated. “My father told me about you.”

We finished the brief discussion with plans to meet sometime the upcoming weekend when I made it out to Jinja.

***

Six days later, the morning of September 28, I was in my third-rate motel room in the second-tier Ugandan city, Jinja.

I got a call from Najiib. It was 10:30 in the morning, and he was waiting outside. This was earlier than we had planned, but he told me that he was going to check out his fish farm cages and asked if I wanted to join.

“What do you have to do?” I asked looking for some clarification. I had no idea these guys fish farmed.

“We go to feed our cage fish,” he answered.

Sounds good to me. Actually, it sounded awesome. I was eager to see what this operation looked like.

I went outside to see Najiib in his white Toyota.

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Off we went. Najiib’s little brother, Umar, was in the backseat.

Najiib was taller and worked in real estate–buying chunks of land, breaking them up, and selling the pieces for development. Umar had his own cell phone store. Neither of these vocations would be much the topic today.

Today was about family and fishing–Ugandan style.

First thing I did was show them the picture I took with their father at the car wash. They hadn’t seen him in 16 years.

“That’s him,” Najiib said smiling.

Making our way out of the city, we passed an abandoned industrial site. Umar pointed out the car from the backseat.

“That was where he first worked,” he said.

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It was the old Nytil factory that once produced fabrics. The boys told me their dad worked here as his first job, even before he had met their mother.

The topic then went from family to fishing.

On the side, these boys had started a little entrepreneurial experiment. Before taking me to their lab, though, they showed me a fullscale version of what they hoped to do.

After a couple of kilometers of windy, old blacktop over the shoreline of Lake Victoria, we pulled into a lot on the lake’s edge.

We got out, and Umar spoke to one of the workers:

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The man tended to these cage nets:

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Which were places in these waters:

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(And by the way, these aren’t just any waters. This is Lake Victoria at the precise spot where a river from it starts to flow north. See the narrows back there? That’s the headwaters of the Nile River.)

The cage nets held fish–many fish–for this seasoned fish supplier. Working with this larger operations, the brothers had started their own fledgling farm with five cages a bit further down the coast. After a few more minutes of conversation I couldn’t understand, we packed it back up and went to their farm.

On the way, we had gotten far enough out of Jinja that we entered a little independent outskirt.

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Soon, we turned off the now-dirt road and bumped and rolled along into a little homestead. There was a small house for a mom and two children and a little kitchen hut for meals.

Mom and son; the mom was here as a caretaker of the property.

Mom and son; the mom was here as a caretaker of the property.

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Kitchen hut

Inside kitchen hut

Inside kitchen hut

From the house, Najiib emerged with life jackets.

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Time to suit up.

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We walked to the lake’s edge within 100 yards of the house.

We walked around small square rice paddies and a yard of drying laundry.

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At the shore, one boy bathed.

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The water looks okay from here, but not so much from here:

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We hopped in the boat.

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We rowed out to the cages maybe 100 more yards offshore.

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Birds were teased by fish they couldn’t reach.

The brothers knew how to make the fish surface, though.

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Tilapia feeding frenzy

Another way of getting the fish to the surface–and doing to so in a way that kept them there–was to lift the hanging cage nets. While we were feeding the fish, a few helpers came by to do just that.

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As the man raised the net to the surface, the fish flailed. One even got stuck in the cage. This was the perfect chance for the brothers to check out their crop.

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Afterwards, we rowed back.

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Future Fish Farmers of Uganda

The men took the opportunity to talk.

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I wandered around the surrounding sugarcane fields.

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We left soon after and stopped in that outskirt community. The brothers had to talk business with the man who sold them the lakeshore property.

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So I wandered once again. These boys entertained themselves.

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The last thing we did was drive a mile out of town in a different direction to visit a relative–the brother’s aunt, Yusuf’s sister.

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Finally, Najiib and Umar returned me to my hotel.

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Just as I had shown them the picture of their father with me. Now I’d have a photo to show their father when I returned to Minnesota. The boys talked about wanting to bring him back to Uganda to run the fish farm. Najiib talked about going to see Dad later in 2015.

For now they’ll have to settle for phone calls and pictures by way of their American delivery boy.

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This is how travel becomes amazing: make a connection with someone there and get involved with the real life of the area. This is also an example of how everyday people you meet–even just at the car wash–can have an impact.

Wealth: Equalizer and Diversifier (An Essay from China)

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I know an American man from India and an American woman from South Korea, who on separate occasions shared with me their similar experiences traveling to their mother countries: people there could tell right away that these ethnically identical visitors were, in fact, visitors. In addition, the Indian man told me that people in his ancestral homeland could even tell he was from the US.

Similarly, I expected something other than eyes and skin tone to differentiate the Chinese child from his or her American counterpart, something so encompassing it’s hard to point out—attitude, demeanor, carriage. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say that this X factor is ease of expression—and these children had a surprisingly high level of it, a comfort and looseness I’ve come to identify with Americans and opposing the relative rigidity I’ve seen from folks in other countries.

Whatever this factor was, though, I’d find that on account it, my children students would blend right in back home in most classrooms…that is, until they opened their mouths. During a speaking drill practicing the verb to be, I said, “I am American. You are Chinese.” And they responded with, “I am Chinese. You are American.” I went down the line from student to student repeating this. After the sixth or seventh student, I paused a beat and thought, “Hmm, these little buggers are Chinese.” I forgot.

The variables I could think of to account for this blending between students here and back home were prosperity, modernity, and globalization. These students lived in a city and came from families with enough extra income to afford these English classes. I assumed they had internet and television at home by which they watched the latest media and trends. It seems once on this prosperity/modernity/globalization plane, a universalizing element in humanity occurs.

The counterbalance to this trend is that while students found themselves on the same plane of global prosperity, their resources now allowed for greater individual expression. This magnified their idiosyncrasies of style and greatly undermined the idea that “all Chinese look alike.”

Sometimes, though, there was an unfortunate familiarity that may have also been due to China’s growing prosperity. My class of eleven-year-olds had a real “this is boring and we’re not going to go along with your stupid lesson” attitude. One day when trying to keep the attention of this hard-to-please group of fifteen students—some with eye-rolling expression—I thought, “You little brats.” Reynold from Oregon told me that some of his students regularly called him fat and said unmentionable things about his mother. He knew the language so caught all of it.

The thought occurred to me that having the best of both worlds—prosperity and contentment—requires enhanced discipline as the former increases; that as the ability to appease oneself or one’s children with more stimulation rises, so does the potential difficulty to realize that true happiness comes from things that can’t be purchased. I guess this is a growing pain of a developing country.

***

This essay was an excerpt from my recently-released book – Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China – a chronology of observations, experiences, insights, and photographs living in China from 2010-2011. It is available on Amazon.