External perceptions abroad and the sitcom “Friends.”

I have been back from Ethiopia for just over 5 weeks now. I have begun to settle again into what I once thought of as normal and what I now think of as a damn interesting game of energy exchange.

This morning, I received this email from an Ethiopian priest, one of the first Ethiopians we met on our trip and one who overwhelmed us with his kindness and hospitality. An excerpt:

Dear Mike, I frankly, am in financial crisis at this moment. I ask for pardon for asking money in our first contact via email, please, understand ! if you could intervine no matter how little, if you were able to send some thing via Western union, it could help me to push a little bit and move around for mission appeal. Mike and Amy, I consider you as my real brothers and friends.

Before I received this email, I was able to count 3 Ethiopians who we met on our trip who did NOT ask us for money during anytime in our relationship. Father Goesh was among this small number.

———————————————————————-

There are several harsh realities we as travelers have to come to terms with.

Reality 1: our plane ticket to said country probably costs more than the majority of the people in that country earn in 5 years. (round trip ticket from Seattle to Ethiopia = $1,300)

Reality 2: the color of our skin tells people more about you than anything you could attempt to explain – whether it’s true or not

Reality 3: We get to go home at the end of the trip. They ARE home.

Anyone who has traveled to a more impoverished country than their own understands the challenges of being perceived as the financial savior sent from abroad. On any given day, it was common for us to be asked for money somewhere between 50-100 times in Ethiopia. This request was at times very serious, other times more like a kind of joke, while for others it was something that was taught to them by a parent, i.e. “When you see a ferenji, politely ask them for money and wait patiently until they give you some.”

So if we take the low estimate and multiply that by nine weeks, that means that we were asked for money roughly about 3,150 times during our stay in Ethiopia. There are obviously people you want to help and people that need help. But giving money to everyone is not practical.

A quick look at the average backpacker –

-Many of us have low paying jobs (if we are in fact employed),

-Most of us do not own our own home but are rather renting ($520 for a shared apartment in Seattle),

-Cost of food is considerably more in our own countries

-Does the average backpacker even have health insurance back home??

-Some of us have vehicles but after tacking on gas, insurance, parking, maintenance, etc….

-Entertainment is expensive ($3-$10 for a drink in a bar not to mention cover)

This is something that I have tried to explain to others abroad and I have been met by laughter and at times been called a liar. But the reality is, 1 out of 2 “backpackers” living in the United States between the ages of 18-28 would be considered to be living under the cultural economic standard of living.

Consider the fact that America is the largest soft product producer in the world. We export more culture than any other nation through a wide variety of media, and no matter where you are in the world, you can’t help but come across a coca-cola sign and a Brittany Spears poster.

Because of this, a lot of people in other countries think that wealth and comfort are simply benefits of living in America. I call it the “Friends” delusion. People across the world turn on the tv and watch an episode of Friends and can quite understandably assume that everyone in America is Caucasian, sits around and drinks coffee, doesn’t have a job, and has lots of money.

Anything that is considered “good” comes at the sacrifice of something that is also “good.” I highly recommend a documentary called “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” It follows five men orphaned by civil war who leave their huts one day and the next find themselves in Houston, Texas of all places, where they pursue the American dream only to discover that there “truly is no paradise on earth.” “No one in America has any friends,” one man tells a friend in Sudan over the phone. “I don’t have time to do anything.”

We travel to challenge who we are and to challenge our beliefs about the world at large. It is a two way street. Our perceptions about the world are just as subjective as the world’s perception about us. Our interactions with different individuals will result in different experiences for all involved. I may act pleasant with all I encounter, but not everyone will consider me to be a pleasant person. So is it more important to be perceived as pleasant or is it more important to believe yourself to be pleasant? Which truth is more true?

I am a firm advocator of challenging your beliefs and traveling is a good way to do this. Always remember, that once your beliefs have been challenged, you will hang in a limbo state as you restructure your views of reality. This may take a year, a month, or a moment. I have been able to do some major restructuring since my last trip abroad, but nothing permanent has been put in its place yet.

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