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2006-01-28 - 10:48 a.m.

..thinking out loud about how I came to be where I am...

This morning I was trying to remember when I first realized what it meant that there was a world out there - one with other countries and peoples. When I was about 6, I remember that my uncle's next door neighbor adopted a little girl who was a different color, and that she came from a another country. But I don't think I comprehended what "another country" actually meant.

I remember more clearly the first time I met a black person. I was about four years old, and Mickey was a student who worked in my dad's lab. I spent a lot of time in my dad's lab. And so I spent a lot of time playing with Mickey. One day I finally looked up at her and asked,

"Mickey, how come you never take a bath?"

She was a little surprised and told me that she showered every day. And so I asked,

"Then how come your skin is always dirty?"

She laughed and said, "This isn't dirt, honey, this is the way I am. It's the color of my skin."

She pulled up her sleeve and coaxed me to rub her skin really hard, to show me that the color doesn't come off. I remember being fascinated. And then I wanted to go on playing.

Mickey later told my father the story in a giggly voice (she apparently thought it was very cute), and the story immediately entered the Family Chronicles, to be pulled out on holidays and gatherings to embarrass the teenager. (far less embarrassing than the chronicles describing the time I lifted up my dress and peed on the neighbors' brand new Persian rug in front of the entire Christmas party, or the time I came back from a summer with my grandmother as a devout six-year-old fundamentalist Christian. yeah. I'll save those for another time.)

Anyway, I was thinking about these stories with reference to awareness of the greater world. When do we realize there is a world out there? I wasn't a kid who traveled, except to the east and west coasts to visit family, and the occasional drive through Canada.

My childhood recollections include mishmash of evidence that a larger world was out there, but only with reference to my own experience. My playmate Seth Kleinman's mom spoke with a funny accent (she was from England). When I was 12, my mother went to a conference in Mexico. My dad had stamps from places in Europe, and when I was 7 years old, I sat on the White House lawn with a tour group from the Soviet Union. One of the men started photographing me and told my grandmother that he missed his daughter so much, and I looked like her. I sat and played with them for a long time, pulling clumps of grass out of the lawn and throwing them. I remember one nice woman repeating over and over, "My dress is blue." It was only later that I realized that she was practicing her English on me. When we parted, they each gave me little Russian souvenir pins and said, "Thank you and Have a nice day." The man with the camera hugged me. I guess I realized who they were, but their home and way of life was simply not a part of my consciousness.

My favorite music was the Beatles and so I clearly knew that England was out there. The stars from my favorite television show "Heart to Heart" zipped all over Europe - so I knew that there was a vacationland on the other side of the Atlantic. Much of my conception of "Africa" came from pictures of children starving in Ethiopia, or that it was the place where early Americans got the slaves. I vaguely remember talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat - but mostly I associated Egypt with King Tut and the pyramids. I remember my eigth grade art teacher drawing a picture of a dove crushed by a clenched fist on the day after Sadat was assassinated. I remember the hostages in Iran, but I certainly didn't know what a muslim was, and I couldn't have told you the first thing about why "those bad men" wanted to hurt "us."

I am sure that it wasn't as bad as all this. I mean, I think that I knew other places existed. The television show M*A*S*H taught me that we as a country had been at war in both Korea AND Vietnam, and that these actions were separated by more than a decade (I kid you not, I did not learn about these wars in history class. I learned about them from my obsession with a television situation comedy).

I am not certain when I grew out of my insular existence. As a teenager I remember the first time I heard the song "99 Luftbalons" - in GERMAN. Once I figured out that German was actually the language, I remember wondering, why did they remake that song in GERMAN? The USA was the center of culture, immitated by everyone else. When I was sixteen and clinically depressed, I never pondered suicide, but rather wanted to move to a place as far removed from my life and experience as was humanly possible. In my mind, this place was Venice.

When I was 20 years old, I dated a man who was 12 years my senior (my swingdance partner). It didn't last long (although we are still good friends). But I remember his horror that I didn't read the newspaper. In particular, I didn't know who Lech Walesa was. The whole chronology of the fall of the eastern bloc - even as I was living in German House - occurred as background noise to my life.

My fairly consistent impression through this time is the world as whole - one that encompassed many other countries - existed mostly for me as a part of the past, through my unread (and poorly written) history textbooks.

I am recalling this with a little bit of a sense of horror..I mean, I'm not an unintelligent person. How could I get through so many years of my life with a complete ignorance of the world around me? Am I selectively remembering my ignorance? Was I more aware than I think? But truly I remember thinking that the news was boring, and if I had had a choice, I would have switched to watch Gilligan's Island instead...

Today I cannot get through the day without the world news. I'm still fairly ignorant in world geography (just recently looked up the exact location of Darfur), but at least I look things up!

When did this transformation occur? When did the world suddenly transform from a chapter of unread history to something that affected my daily life? I do think that it occurred slowly over those years, but I also have realized that some people learn by application. I only became interested in calculus and physics when I realized their direct relevance to my research. I took these courses twice, in fact, because I needed to learn them AFTER I saw their practical application.

I suspect the same is true of world awareness. I began to live in the international community as a grad student. My trips out of the US began only in my mid-late 20s. Each time I went to a new place, I absorbed so much new information. I devoured the streets, the history, the art, the literature. I needed to experience these other places directly to develop my curiosity for them. And so the insular wall has collapsed. Having some connection to a place makes my curiosity stronger - I can read a history book of Poland and place my friend Zarek in it. I read two volumes of Russian history when in love with A. As I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography, I found myself imagining my friend Bongani, how his family must have fit into the history of South Africa. And then everytime I pick up a newspaper, these places remain in my awareness.

I think I most certainly grew up as a typical American, in terms of my lack of awareness. And yet, I find myself shocked everytime I talk about a current events and my freshman return a blank, uncomprehending stare. I think they should know these things.

We as a culture have to snap out of this insularity. I find that I constantly encourage those around me to leave their home towns, to visit faraway places, and to move out of the zones of comfort that have insulated them. I think that this is what snapped me out of complacence, and so I automatically assume that everyone should do it, too.

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