No Context, No Truth
Resting comfortably in the fetus, you awake with a jolt.
There's a stirring. Motion everywhere. You're thrust from this climate-controlled cocoon, not unwillingly, but it's still a bit of a shock. Out of the opening you're pushed, into the harsh glare of many eyes.
Welcome to your new world.
There are sounds you don't recognize, smells you don't want to recognize, and sights that strain your eyes.
You shake the jetlag from your head, and look for a taxi.
Even after all these times, I still love the sense of rebirth that I get when I land in a new country. I'm a kid again, surrendering to everything that is new. And everything is new.
New sounds. New smells. New people. And new truths.
New truths are what I live for. Especially when they don't correspond with the 'facts'.
The whole point of living, I think, is to wander around, discovering your own truths. And the only way to do that is to destroy a few (or many) facts along the way.
'Fact': Japanese will not make eye contact.
Truth: Uh, this apparently hasn't been true for a long time. Every Japanese person I know makes eye contact.
'Fact': Vietnamese are still angry at Americans about the war.
Truth: Vietnam has had two wars since the 'American' war. They've pretty much forgotten. Many Vietnamese ran up to me yelling, "America Number One!"
And so on......
I know people who worry that there is nothing left to discover anymore. There is no adventure, they say.
Well, they're wrong.
One of the great ironies of our lives today is that we 'know' more about the world than ever before, which means we're wrong about the world more than ever before.
I mean, if you had never heard of Sumatra, then you can't have any wrong ideas about it, right?
But today, we've heard of almost everyplace. CNN, USA Today, Discovery, and many other sources bring a mind-load of facts to our door every day. They fill us full of names, sights, numbers, dates, and other data.
A lot of the time, these 'facts' are just plain wrong, but even when they're correct, they're not 'true'.
Huh, you ask?
You see, the media only gives us what is necessary for the story, so there's no context. For example, twelve million people is a lot. But what's the context?
Our minds are very good at taking the specific and applying it to the general (and vice-versa), we call this an assumption. Many times, however, this lack of context turns assumed 'facts' into mistakes.
Write this down: No context, No truth.
I'm serious, write it down. It's important. Trust me.
Or better yet, don't trust me. Travel, and test it.
No Context, No Truth.
This is a good thing, because it means that the more facts we're taught, the more discovery we'll have when we travel. If you travel with an open mind.
Last week, I made my first visit to mainland China. Beijing, to be specific.
I was with Paisan, a Thai friend, for business.
This was a perfect trip for me, because the whole world's been talking about China for the last 40 years, yet we don't really know anything about it.
So it was time to find some context, and hopefully, some truth.
Beijing, in context:
-Chinese drive on the right side of the road, like Americans. And almost all road signs have English, making it fairly easy to get around.
On the other hand, traffic is terrible (and will only get worse as more people can afford cars).
-People were quite friendly. They smiled a lot, and tried to talk to me. One man was convinced that if he just kept trying, I would spontaneously acquire the ability to speak Mandarin. He was wrong.
Others spoke English with differing levels of success (though, all-in-all, they were better than the average Japanese).
-You can get on the Internet in China, but you cannot get this website. I could access Tripod's main site (www.tripod.com), and I could access my homepage builder, but I could not get into any member sites (members.tripod.com).
Apparently, that's where all the undesirable content is.
-I went to the Hard Rock Cafe, and found that communists shake their booty just as hard as their compatriots in the 'free' world.
Also, Chinese people didn't get shot for dancing with Texans (I never figured out why 70% of the foreigners were Texan. Must be oil in them thar hills).
-The streets are very clean (if nothing else, I guess communism should provide clean streets), but the air was filthy. Everyone burns coal in the winter, so I suspect that's the cause.
I might bring a canary next time.
-There are a lot of people in green military outfits, male and female, though few seem to actually be on duty.
-Free enterprise is alive.
I met a great free-lance guide, named Qu Hong, at the Summer Palace.
She gave me a 1.5 hour tour, and told me all about modern Beijing life.
She told me how British people have always read that the Chinese will not smile, and they are surprised to find that it's incorrect. She tells them that she's always read that the British never smile!
She answered all my questions about movies (they're getting quite a few American movies these days), student life (everyone is studying English), love and marriage (she claims that it's acceptable to date and marry Westerners now), and life in general, without once looking over her shoulder.
She says she feels no constraints or pressures from the government.
She is, she says, free (and if you feel free, you are free, I guess).
On that last day, before I went to the airport, Qu and I stood next to the famous Marble boat, looking out over Kunming Lake. We were talking about perceptions, and I told her about all the negative press that China gets.
She sighed and pouted, as she looked out at the lake and said, "Maybe they had already decided what to write before they came."
"Yeah," I replied, "but that's why we travel."
She smiled, "You should see more of China, I think."
She's right. I should see more. We all should
In that moment, she gave China a face, in my mind. So did the other people I met.
Those faces provide a context. A context that I'll put to every 'fact' I hear about China from now on.
That context provides a truth. Not facts, to be sure, but a truth.
And those truths are worth a lot more to me than the facts are.
So don't let people tell you that there's nothing left to discover.
There's always the truth.....