In my travels abroad, I first felt it in on the plane from Osaka to Tokyo. Because everybody was Japanese. Everybody. Not only that, the entertainment provided for our viewing pleasure was sumo. I'd never seen sumo before, in person or on TV. And here it was.
It's what I've felt for almost six years now, if not on a daily basis, surely on a weekly one. It's not an altogether nasty feeling; truth be told, I've grown so accustomed to it, so expectant of its insights, that to be denied its jarring nudge would be almost, well, cruel.
The nature of streets -- in Japan, narrow and winding; in Cambodia, dusty and bumpy. The look of people, their shapes and sizes. The smell of the breeze. The varying configuration of buildings large and small. The colour of the sun at night, as it slinks into dusk. The emotional transactions that conversations require.
I apologize for belaboring the point, but I don't think I can underestimate what a powerful, almost liberating force such a condition engenders. Growing up in one place, the same place, you think, as you must: This is the world. This is the way the world works. This is the way that life has chosen to reveal itself.
And then, suddenly, as suddenly as an airplane touching ground, as fast and as jarring, you begin to learn. You realize that everything you know, everything you've been taught, all the ideas about human existence that have been formed and passed down to you are, at best, inadequate. I won't say wrong, or misguided, or intentionally lacking; these terms imply a kind of intent that society does not plan. People are people, and humans are humans, and they raise their children the way that they were raised. This is not a flaw but a necessity.
But it's inadequate. Because even though we are becoming more and more connected, and more and more multi-cultural, the fruits of these alliances are illusory (at best). We can eat ethnic food and marvel over National Geographic's vivid depictions of those who are different than ourselves -- but it's not enough.
Not enough for what? What do I expect?
I cannot speak for you; I'm not sure that I can even speak for myself. Knowledge is hard to attain, and difficult to process, let alone articulate.
I find it somewhat ironic that on the same day Terri Schiavo passes away from starvation, the Pope is revealed to be being kept alive by means of a feeding tube. That is a literary image and coincidence that any self-respecting editor would dismiss as being too on-the-point, obvious and over-the-top.
I don't know what these two people, the citizen and the saint, will ulitmately come to represent, but both cases point, with a laser-like intensity, at the sanctity of life, and what we will do, and not do, to preserve it. And our opinions on this issue, on life itself, are nurtured in the towns and provinces and countries and societies that sustain us. All of which lead to conviction, and certainty, and obstinancy.
"I am right," we think. "What I believe is the truth, the path, the way that things should be."
And whether you are a shah in Iran or a dictator in Cambodia or a preacher in Milwaukee or a teacher in Moosejaw, the end result of this line of thinking is the same: inertia.
Life itself has a three-dimensionality that I had never considered before leaving Canada. I was subsequently allowed access, access to views on life that are separate and isolated from those that shaped me.
I was offered, and accepted, displacement.
And, hopefully, this same process will eventually enable me to fit myself back into the puzzle of my own culture with a rudimentary but piercing understanding, however partial, of how complex and mystifying the human condition truly is. How devoid of easy answers and lock-step conclusions, and how better off we all for that ambiguous confusion.