Some people, I think, still are confused about why I’ve decided to spend two months in southern France mostly alone. Frankly, it could have been here or a town in Ethiopia or Indonesia. I chose Montpellier because I’m slightly familiar with the French culture and I thought the weather would actually be better than it has been.
The important part is being somewhere with a different perspective outside my comfort zone — to have a chance to grow, to learn. I intuitively feel connected to the world but in fact know so little about it. I’ve traveled a lot both for business and for pleasure but have always been somewhat isolated in the proverbial bubble that protects American businessmen and tourists. But my best memories have always been those opportunities when I’ve been able to venture outside that comfort zone.
I remember being in Moscow with a group of businessmen when my brother and I were but a few without body guards. In fact, our best experience was going off the beaten path for a dinner with a local family. The son of that family had spent a summer at my brother’s house in Seattle on an exchange program. The memories of the hospitality of that evening will forever outlive the sterile soirees planned by our wealthy business hosts.
Once, I met a beautiful Ethiopian woman who lives in Singapore but was visiting London while waiting in line for drink at a West End jazz bar. Later that trip, my friends and I ended up having a home-cooked Ethiopian feast at her niece’s house complete with several rounds of traditional coffee.
Her niece later became one of my favorite friends. She adores all things Asian and have taken trips alone to Tokyo, Singapore, Saigon and many other parts of Asia. I told her that she must have been an Asian princess in another life, a concept which she clings to even today. She certainly looks like a princess.
When visiting Tanzania for a safari with my family, the locals stole our hearts with the respect and attention they showed toward my elderly father. We’re sometimes so over run by the independent individualistic culture of the West (which has its own benefits), we forget that in most parts of the world elderly people are revered and adored for their wisdom.
Here in Montpellier, I was behind a fragile elderly gentlemen who was having trouble opening a door exiting a mall. I helped him out and then offered to carry his bags down the stairs. When I lived in Korea, any young person would have made the same gesture without a second thought. He was at first taken a back but when he realized that I had no alternative motive but to help, he smiled insisting that he was fine.
My best memory in France was in Paris when I once volunteered to visit a resident at a nursing home. Here I was yelling in horrible French to an elderly Frenchman because he was hard of hearing. As I was leaving I gave him a book on Seattle (my home town) and he told me that he’d prefer if I would just visit him again.
In an ironic twist, I clearly remember when I was visiting Korea in my youth trying to rediscover my heritage, a local with no mal intent told me that I wasn’t a “real” Korean. Before I could even respond, a fellow visitor who was a white American interjected, “It doesn’t matter because he’s a real American”.
Let’s revel in being part of the connected human race and celebrate our different perspectives. Scientists say our sun has 6 billion years of life left. That’s a long time for us to share.