Friday, April 1, 2011

For those who go abroad

(the following was written by me and published in The Dakota Student at the University of North Dakota on March 29, 2011 — I think all the rights belong to them now, not sure)
I am in China, and that's the first thing you need to know. The second is that David Foster Wallace killed himself 12 years after writing, in Infinite Jest, "That everyone is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn't necessarily perverse." The third is that I have no credentials, that my age is a mere blink in geological time, and that this article has been written before by better writers than I. That this is all you need to know technically means you can stop reading here, and that's your prerogative, and just as Britney has hers, you can exercise it. I hope you don't.
Someone once told me that they were studying abroad because they wanted to experience another culture, and I thought, "admirable," and I also thought, "impossible." Then I chose to study abroad, and I spoke similarly. Why China?To learn Chinese. Why Chinese? Challenging, relevant, useful. What do you plan on doing with that? I don't know. So why China? Uh, I want to... Experience another culture.
But this isn't entirely possible, because you can only scratch surfaces, and if you try to shoehorn your way into a culture, all you're really doing is imposing yourself upon it, right? If you think by spending four months in, say, India you're going to knowIndia, you're going to somehow be a fount of information regarding India, you're going to, more or less, becomejust the tiniest bit Indian, the truth might lie somewhere closer to you poking at India (as if an entire nation of over a billion people were definable) with a yardstick.
Or maybe I'm looking at this wrong. Go abroad, please. But take what you're learning with a grain of salt, not because those teaching you are untrustworthy—no, they're probably terrific pedagogues—but because you yourself can't be trusted. I'm speaking from experience (and here's the can of worms about my experience: what makes me think Iknow anything?). If you're really serious about going abroad, please admit that your knowledge is already flawed, and that it still will be when you return, and that worldliness does not equal knowledge. That knowing and understanding are two different coins altogether.
On March 17th a Buddhist monk in Sichuan self-immolated in response to 2008 military crackdowns in Tibet, the second self-immolation since. The thoughts vaporized in that human pyre are not known, and what escaped into the immediate air, flaring up from a wet bald head, could not be seen.
If you go abroad to some strange place—the neck of some woods—that you don't understand, realize that the very woods you're in don't understand you. This is the first step toward reconciliation. If we fear what we don't understand (source: everyone ever), the problem lies not in what is feared but in our lack of understanding. I've seen fights break out due to lack of ability to understand one another on the most basic of levels: language. When you go abroad, you might not be able to get your point across, and in that moment of perfect frustration, ask why you and your conversational partner can't make sense of each other. Is it because you're both speaking different languages? Is it because you have differing perspectives? Is it because no matter how hard you try, no matter how big your metaphorical trepanning trephine, you can never really get into the mind of another person and examine their thought process? Is it because you will always be in your skull and your skull only?
As a semi-official representative of UND's Study Abroad program, I shouldn't tell you that you don't needto study abroad, but you don't. If it is financially viable and you are willing, by all means, go, you will never regret it, but when I talk about "those who go abroad," I don't just mean those who travel; I mean those who want to get at something more, something in the emptiness between minds. You can cover the world and still retain your same opinions, your sameWeltanschauung, your kanfa—you can choose to think what you think and always think those same thoughts. But know that there are other perspectives—just know it—be aware of it, and the fact that everyone around you has their reasons for doing whatever it is they do might be enough to stop you from blowing your top, or at least slow the boil. I guess what I'm saying is, When I talk about going abroad, I am trying to get at something—for lack of a simpler word—something metaphysical. An intangibility. By "abroad" I don't mean anyplace physical; maybe I'm talking about transcendence.
My god, this is preachy. I'm a dick sometimes, and you might be a dick, and our varying degrees of dickishness may be at the root of disagreements and minor altercations, but, as Wayne Coyne sang, after ruminating on our deaths, all of our inevitable deaths, "Let them know you realize that life goes fast; it's hard to make the good things last," then, as the music moseys along with Coyne's fragile voice, and the riff comes back, he asks of us, "Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?" Well, do you?

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