Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Grand Tour Reflections

The Grand Tour refers, traditionally, to a trip around Europe that wealthy young aristocrats would make as part of their education in the 17th-early 19th century. Since I spent one-third of my first two years of college outside of the US, I've been thinking about how my travel has affected my development as a human being.

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Caveat: the idea of the Grand Tour is rooted in classism. Travel takes time and money. Study abroad, which I did, almost always means taking a lighter academic quarter, which means that people with unit-heavy majors need to be strategic about when they study abroad, if at all. Among the people I met during my quarter abroad, a much higher proportion of people were taking extra time, taking gap years, etc. as compared to the people I know in general.

I think that travel confers unique experiences and consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have, particularly while still young and particularly for long durations. But that isn't intended to say anything against people who don't travel, for whatever reason.

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Summary of time spent out of my region in the last two years: 2 months in Indonesia (July-August 2015), 6 months in Germany (April-September 2016, roughly half in Berlin and half in Hamburg) with brief trips to many other places in Europe (of particular importance to my self-progress: Budapest, Hungary and Rome, Italy).

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Insights listed in no particular order:

Early on in my time in Indonesia, I read an article, which I can't find anymore although I think it was from the Jakarta Post, about high- and low-context cultures. Specifically, it was talking about how business between Indonesians and Australians can get complicated and be fraught with misunderstanding because in high-context cultures you are supposed to be able to pick up on a lot more nuances without being told about them explicitly, while in low-context cultures everything is supposed to be laid out clearly. I am from a low-context, very casual culture (California Bay Area) and tend towards obliviousness. Throughout my summer I got better at picking up on social cues, thinking about the proper time and place to talk to people about certain topics. I'm still not great at it, but I do pay more attention to what's going on between the lines than I used to.

I've written before about the way my time in Indonesia with the NGO I worked for turned my views on tech+tradition and rural development on their heads. But those insights are still ones that I feel strongly about, even more so now that I'm back in the Silicon Valley bubble, especially with the voting patterns in the election. Technology can be integrated into people's values. It is worthwhile to bring resources and jobs to rural places. Obviously the trends of urbanization and globalization are powerful, and obviously some "traditional values" are awful. But people want a say in progress.

That summer I found two role models. One was my boss, a brilliant woman who has a lot of social and political influence (as in, because of her I am two degrees of separation from the Indonesian Minister of Energy) who once negotiated a ransom for her husband from kidnappers who threatened to murder him, and who also sat me down on my first afternoon in Indonesia and said "welcome home! I will be your mom for the next two months." Over a year removed, of course some things become distorted through memory--but I remember her kindness as a force just as powerful as her entrepreneurial brilliance. I want to be like her.

The other role model is the king I met in the mountains. Someone with quiet, understated authority, someone who cares about the well-being of their people, who honors their history while looking forward to the future and embracing technology and progress. Indelible images: the traditional bamboo palace and the electronics workshop right outside of the throne room. Standing behind a row of men wearing the traditional black-and-ochre headwraps for the Independence Day celebrations as a drone flew overhead recording the event for broadcast to the local TV station. Is it arrogant to say that I want to develop a kingly presence? Well, I suppose my constant role model is imperial.

On a more heartbreaking note: as we drove down from the mountains back to Jakarta, the NGO employee who accompanied us and had taken care of us throughout the summer told me that one advantage of taking on international interns was so that we could see that, and I quote, "Muslims are not terrorists, are not extremists." In a world that is still Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, and perhaps increasingly so, statements that I made offhandedly in high school about how bad religion is can be intended neutrally but will not be received neutrally at all. I'm still an atheist but living in a predominantly Muslim country and talking to people who openly practice their religion and see it as very important for themselves has directly led me to be more careful in conversations about religion.

Unfortunately, my time in Germany only confirmed my knowledge of and deepened my horror toward global Islamophobia. Pro- and anti-refugee signs were rarely seen intact. We met a government employee in Budapest who said, and I am paraphrasing pretty closely, "Germany should take more migrants because they are more used to mixing with Muslims and Asians than we are."

The play FEAR, which I watched in my second or third week in Germany, was probably one of the most important two-hour spans in my entire six months. A concentrated look at the neo-Nazis and the people who are neo-Nazis in all but name, at the liberals who don't do anything (and feeling a strong sense of discomfort about being one of them), und so weiter.

Still: Hamburg was covered in pro-refugee, pro-LGBT stickers. The local antifa had a booth at the neighborhood block party. On the first of May, many held marches in solidarity with refugees.

The traditional Grand Tour is supposed to be about becoming cultured. Well, I went to Paris and Rome. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity but honestly? Paris did not make such a big impression on me. The Louvre was a beautiful temple to European art. I ate a crepe along the Champs-Elysee.

Rome, though--Rome was another story. I still catch myself daydreaming about clambering about on the Palatine, drinking citrus soda from Coop and breathing in the air that smelled more like home than anything I'd smelled in the previous four months, deliriously happy. I've written about Rome already. But being there, as someone with whom the historical figure of Octavian Caesar resonates greatly, twenty years old and full of dreams--Rome is the eternal city and there I felt the most as if I was playing out the role of the Grand Tour traveler, or better yet the pilgrim, coming face to face with something that tells me that whatever I may think my place is, I can transcend it, just like Octavian did. (But with less murder.)

While in Germany, especially during the summer, I was much more independent than I was in Indonesia, or even at home. I loved it. Language barrier? More like a door. I enjoyed daily transactions because I enjoyed feeling good at German, enjoyed meeting people where they were and not being the obnoxious American tourist who counts on people to speak English. My lifestyle was pretty simple, sometimes boring, and I regret not getting out more and making more friends, but it was still a comfortable lifestyle, one I could budget myself (although, on the theme of economic privilege, I knew that I would come out above at the end of each month and that certainty was what made it fun to budget rather than terrible).

I've written about my experiences of race in Indonesia and in Germany. When in Indonesia I played up the fact that I'm Hui* on my mom's side, because it was something that gave me a connection to Indonesian culture. When in Germany, I felt way more minority than ever.

*a Muslim Chinese ethnic minority group

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(On a more personal note: my employer and her husband with whom I stayed in Indonesia, as well as my host parents in Germany, were both couples that have been married for decades, have raised children who have gone off on their own paths in the world, and still hold one another in the highest regard and with the deepest respect and affection. I don't even want to consider dating for another few years at minimum, but living with these two couples in successive years...it's not like I didn't believe in love before. But seeing them, I believe in love.)

(There is one person in the universe who is allowed to talk to me about the content of the previous paragraph and if you have any doubts, it's not you.)

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The quarter before I went to Indonesia, I took a preparatory class through the public service center wherein we discussed a lot about the ethics of service, particularly service abroad. There was no real conclusion. We read To Hell with Good Intentions, whose express purpose is to discourage people from volunteering abroad, and yet we all still went.

This quote resonates particularly:

If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.

This is approximately where I am mentally, now. So: technology and tradition, progress and rural areas, are not diametrically opposed. So: I want to be a king, I want to build a business, I want to build a new order, I want to build. So: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and fascism are on the rise. So: race is complicated. So: context is important. So? What now? The tour was grand but home is where the work starts.

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