It’s a Big, Big World
What You Can’t Learn in School
I returned to the United States with a penchant for tea. On late Buenos Aires afternoons, I’d join my family for mate, an Argentinian drink made from a holly-like herb. Each member of the house would take turns drinking the hot water infused with herbs from a hollowed gourd using a metal straw. After coming home from classes in Bangalore, my host mother would ask me if I’d like to “take tea” and would proceed to create her chai masala concoction of tea, milk, and spoonfuls of sugar. In Beijing and Shanghai, my hosts would serve tea after meals. While waiting for the tea to brew, they’d douse the cups with hot water to pre-wash, pre-heat, and pre-rinse them. Throughout our hour long conversations, they’d graciously pour and refill my mini teacup with fresh tea.
Now I’m back at MIT, and I brew tea bags in the middle of the night, typically in the company of a problem set and instrumental music playing from iTunes. Some of the trip’s aspects that made the largest impact on me, surprisingly, weren’t related to academics. They’re not things I thought I’d learn in my study of cities. Rather, the trip greatly impacted how I think about, observe, and understand things that are, well, big.
The scope of realities is bigger than I knew. Global cities like Bangalore and Shanghai contain simultaneously occurring multiple worlds. I think that experiencing this dichotomy first hand has encouraged me to look beyond the immediate. Very few things are as simple as they appear. When I returned to the United States, I read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. While Sachs’ rhetoric is powerful, I cannot agree with his argument that massive amounts of foreign aid and neoliberal economic policies are the best and only solutions to global poverty. As I saw, foreign aid is difficult to come by, and neoliberal policies, without ample protection that is hard to obtain, can hurt the vulnerable.
While away, I barely did math beyond the simple conversion between currencies. I wrote inefficiently by hand or rushed on a computer in an Internet cafe. I didn’t hone any technical skills, but I did develop my big thinking skills and the ability to formulate questions based on the intersection between my readings, conversations, and observations. To what extent can the poor participate in the public sphere if they lack the resources like time and money to do so? How can any public policy changes be instituted if corruption is rampant and courts are weak? I think that asking good questions requires heart and concern; traveling gave me firsthand exposure to the true difficulties that lie beyond these questions. I was desperate for answers.
I went abroad to try something different by living away from the familiar. By placing myself into a bigger set of experiences, I witnessed how I react to change. I learned about how big and complex I was, too. The first weekend in Buenos Aires was bad; no official activities were scheduled, we had two days of free time, and I didn’t know anybody or the city very well. I felt indescribably downcast and found myself in need of familiarity and someone to talk to. I called up a friend, Annie, to see if she would come with me Buenos Aires’ immigrant Chinese community. The worldwide Chinese diaspora interested me, and I was hungry for something from home (quite literally; I was craving Comida China). The neighborhood was a baby Chinatown that wasn’t labeled on our tourist maps. Signs were written in both Spanish and Chinese. Food stalls sold fish balls, sticky rice, and milk tea. Asians and non-Asians walked the streets. My friend and I hit up a supermarket, bought red bean pastries, ate on a bench, and I semi awkwardly talked the feelings out.
I’m a bit sheepish to say it, but being the only MIT student in a group of 35 revealed the range of personalities and socialization methods is much, much bigger than what I’ve experienced on campus. One evening in New York, my friend Grace and I were waiting on a shaky elevated platform for the Number 1 train. While I was describing my friends at MIT, I said, “Yeah, he’s majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. He’s really smart.” Then Grace stopped me. “Why do you rank your friends by their intelligence? What does it say about who he is?” She was absolutely right. After being steeped in this culture where brains can mean nearly everything, I had forgotten that in the real world among most people, they’re not.
The cultural differences were big, but the similarities that bridge humans might’ve been bigger. I met peers from Argentina, India, and China. They were going through the same questions we all face: What am I going to do with my life? What is really important to me? On my wall hangs a sari that represents the universality of families and mothers. My host mother, a cute little woman, helped me buy this sari. Shortly thereafter, it started raining heavily, and we unsuccessfully hailed an auto rickshaw. I apologized profusely, but she remained upbeat and bought me bread and fried corn from the bakery. I also had to opportunity to visit Christian churches in every country, and it was amazing to watch and participate in different worship styles that inherently served the same purpose.
Details of economic policies, theories of cultural change, and discussions about public space may or may not be important for me in the future. But these other lessons I learned abroad — truths that I cannot be tested on but rather require personal understanding — are valuable life lessons that I am grateful for. They all go very well with a hot cup of tea, too.