What belongs

March 4, 2013

“What really belongs to a man except what he has already lived? What has a man to live for except what he is not yet living?” – Cesare Pavese

India

I was a sophomore in college when I read Night, Eli Weisel’s searing account of Auschwitz. I finished the slim paperback in one sitting, promptly threw it across my dorm room in disgust, and began to weep angrily. I had learned about the Holocaust in high school history class, had seen the images of skeletal men with shaved heads and Nazi’s goosestepping and Hitler waving his fist and spitting out incomprehensible words, but I had never understood the deliberate, systematic nature of the persecution and murder of so many millions of people.

My earlier understanding of World War II was as an inevitability, like a tornado or earthquake, a thing that can’t be prevented and can’t be stopped–one can only lament over the destruction it leaves behind. The reality of World War II was that it had taken the participation and compliance of many people, each choosing, sometimes on a daily basis, to do terrible and destructive things.

When I finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the beautiful forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, a very different, modern human tragedy, I wept as well, but it was less out of anger than sadness. I didn’t know who or what to be angry at, exactly. Read the rest of this entry »

Identity Crisis

January 21, 2013

One of the supposed cultural differences between French and Americans is the manner in which strangers make small talk. I’m generalizing here, but apparently an American will end any and every introduction with “And what do you do?” while a French person wants to know who you are. The implication is that the French understand a person’s identity is more than what they do to make a living.

It’s ironic, then, that a recent French film should so effectively and movingly demonstrate the risks of allowing what you do to become who you are. What are you left with, after all, if what you do becomes impossible? Read the rest of this entry »

Never assume

January 12, 2013

Puppy in Kathmandu, Nepal

Matt and I perused shops in Thamel, the tourist haven of Kathmandu, looking for jewelry, scarves, and other items easily transported home as souvenirs for family and friends. We popped into a shop loaded with soft, cashmere wraps and scarves, looking for something suitable for Matt’s mom. The Nepalese teenager running the store eyed us curiously. His style could have competed with the hippest European or North American kid, but he had none of the attitude. Instead, he struck up a conversation, asking us about ourselves: where were we from? Were we married?

His attention shifted to Matt.

“Why did you get married?” he asked with a small, curious smile.

Bemused, Matt replied that he’d been in love. The boy, seeming satisfied to have received the answer he’d anticipated, confessed that he, too, was in love. His parents wouldn’t approve, because he was young (15), but it was true love. She, after all, loved him back.

The whole time we were in Asia I couldn’t help but compare and contrast and wonder and marvel and assume. Americans and Indians and Nepalese lived such different lives, I’d decided. After all, how many of the people we met got to indulge in a passion as costly as traveling, for leisure, across oceans and continents? Very few. Most Nepalese people we’d met had not traveled further than India. And yet you saw the stamp of the West on the clothes they wore, the advertisements they saw, and the television they watched. Bollywood films set in Switzerland played constantly on tv, Coke ads popped up in the tiniest towns on the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepalese kids and young adults wore polo shirts and jeans and cool sneakers. In an odd reversal, Western tourists mimicked what they assumed would be the Eastern style: linen shirts and wide, baggy genie pants, scarves, nose-rings and bindis.

And yet in the end, there we were, talking to some teenage kid about the most important thing on his mind: his love life. I can’t say that no matter what our background or nationality or race or religion we’re really all the same, because we aren’t. People are shaped by their environment, their religious beliefs, their opportunities or lack of opportunities. But the same things often do occupy the same space in our thoughts. We share the same needs, perhaps to differing degrees.

The one thing I did learn, and continue to learn, is not to assume anything. Not even about teenagers.