In the past, when aristocracy “came of age” they would embark on a year-long world tour. There is something to be said for broadening the mind by reading the Western Canon but I can’t think of a better way to gain perspective on different peoples and cultures than by seeing them firsthand. I think the old aristocracies were onto something. The travel brochures and television shows don’t capture the experiences or the culture.
I see a lot from my Facebook friends of the different foods, places, and experiences that get posted and am thankful to have so many American and international friends. Pictures on a computer are a proxy for the real thing but I exhort anyone who wants to gain in rich experiences (and riches as well) to: catch a native brook trout in a Western Pennsylvania stream; let your nostrils flare at the crisp mountain air of West Virginia or what natives call ‘God’s country’ of North Carolina; see Augusta, Georgia’s maniacal golf obsession; taste the creole food and hospitality of New Orleans, the busy Gulf of Mexico from Ship Island off of Biloxi, Mississippi; scale the Indian adobe structures in New Mexico and wonder at the vastness of California that encompasses the authentic majesty of the Sierras in places like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite as well as the glint of make-believe in Los Angeles or Hollywood; see the pulse of unique diversity in San Francisco and the world changing area just south called the Silicon Valley; stare in wonder and ski amazing slopes at the Rocky Mountains in Vail, Colorado. Everything I just mentioned you can get in your car and drive to in this amazing country of the United States. The perspective gained from our vast country is inimitable by other means.
For those willing to get on planes you can see more settled cultures. Britain and Continental European areas of Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany are ‘non-suburban’ where it still strikes me of the medieval era with stoned-in towns and meticulously kept countryside farms. The people are hierarchical; a junior employee speaking his mind to the boss is unheard of. Germany is a rare example (and a contrast to the U.S.) of efficient bureaucracy. In Britain, everyone is "proper" and the devil-may-care adventurers that sailed the seven seas and powered Britannia to untold heights are gone; swallowed by an inefficient bureaucracy where "muddling through" is the way. Everything is proper except for the one area where Britain still has considerable sway: pop culture. And then there is the Emerald Isle where drinking with the "lads" on a Wednesday in a Dublin pub adjacent James Joyce's famous St. Stephen's Green is the most natural thing to do. Ireland is a country where its history is recent and its memories long. The Pogue's Young Ned of the Hill tells a lot about Irish culture.
Bedouins herders were my view of people of Saudi Arabia and Iraq; the once fertile crescent looked barren save for oil but immeasurably rich in unexcavated ancient culture. What was believed to be the original ziggurat that prompted the Tower of Babel legend, Abraham’s birthplace Ur, and the legendary Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are all in Iraq. The results of our Cold War victory are evident in Eastern Europe where Poland’s economic power was such in 2009, it was the only EU country whose GDP grew. The Polish people are vibrant, and I was surprised to learn that they have fishing camps, and pick mushrooms and seasonal berries much like my family who moved to a similar area in Pennsylvania in 1912. Those who were in East Germany, and like Poland were on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain for fifty years, are partners with the Polish people in a manner that my World War II veteran Polish-American family could never have imagined. As one former East German told me at a dinner in Warsaw: "we must accept history". Perspective is everything.
Also a result of the Cold War victory was Israel’s population surge from four million to six million as East European and particularly Russian Jewish people were freed to go to the Holy Land. In the 1990s I would see young Israeli soldiers everywhere with Uzis as the sons and daughters of the wars following the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 and, by the 2000s, the IDF was filled with young ‘new’ Israelis of Russian descent, walking around with M-16s but already speaking Hebrew. Israel is a place where history is still being made: they created their own ‘Silicon Valley’ technical company startups and developed drip irrigation to turn the arid desert green. As for ancient history: there’s the mud baths in the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on water, the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, and as immortalized by the Israeli traitor Josephus in Roman times: Masada where the two thousand year old Roman encampments and siege ramp can still be seen.
And then there is Asia, the most populous and economically powerful region. A Korean-American friend of mine described Japan and South Korea as “hermit kingdoms” and I can see the point. The citizens of both Japan and South Korea have unprecedented freedom (due to the U.S. Military remaining as in West Germany after the respective wars – a sharp contrast to the “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” fumbling Joe Biden did with Iraq) but, in spite of the freedom; they are homogenous, racially proud, and unite their country’s policies with their culture. The people log hours around the clock at their work but, in my experience, decide things at a slower pace than in America due to their excessive hierarchy and desire to save face. Taiwan in the 1990s was fantastic. You would see a family of four: father, mother, daughter, son, two dogs and groceries precariously balanced and putt-putting on a scooter in thick traffic caused by more of the same. Singapore’s population is the most diverse and western of Asian countries but is more the size of a city-state than a country.
China is almost incomprehensibly massive in population, land mass, and the capital expenditures it undertakes. They needed a university outside of the booming town of Shenzhen that would support 20,000 on-campus students to support the surrounding industries and had it up and running in two years. Many housing areas around massive factories like Foxconn consist of dozens of fifty to sixty story buildings with dormitory type rooms, busing to and from the factory, and all of the shopping, food, and entertainment needed on the lower floors. These types of factory support housing enclaves also exist in Singapore and Korea but nothing like in China. I’m not going to pretend to understand such a people. We’ll all learn more of China’s culture as the years unfold. The only comment I’ll make on the Asian cultures that often stretch thousands of years is that they revere their ancestors to the point of deification. Perhaps we should learn that point first.
In India I saw the sharpest wealth contrast: Bentleys weaved their way through roads clogged with three-wheeled black and yellow cars, cows, and the smartest dogs I've ever seen. There are housing areas that wouldn’t look out of place in Palo Alto and, a few scant miles away, a three generation extended family crowds on the concrete pad that is the base of a high tension power line and live in suffocating poverty. I made the mistake of taking a picture of this and a little girl on the concrete pad noticed the camera, called her friends and swarmed around our car with extended hands.
And, for all that I think I’ve seen, I know I’ve only seen the surface. There is nothing to do but gape in awe at the intricate meaning in the cultures, the joy from common cross-culture human experiences, and, without question, admiration for the United States’ truly exceptional achievements. Again, perspective is everything. I’ll have no problem plumbing my memories for writing material! I do hope my gentle readers enjoy the ride.