I am on my way to Chennai with a short stop in Dubai. I’ve taken this exact route almost exactly 2 years ago. The difference is that this time I am traveling alone and instead of being a participant on a short term immersion program, carefree and eagerly anticipating all the things I will see, hear, and learn, I am on the other end – working. When I arrive, I will be guiding and caretaking approx 18 adult graduate students in psychology, with one in a business program. As I seamlessly made my way through security at LAX enjoying an unhurried walk through the terminal to my gate, devotedly returning phone calls to loved ones who wished to bid me a short farewell, it dawned on me that wow, I am actually doing this. i’m going back to India.
To give a bit of background, I was asked by 2 of my former professors turned colleague-friends to be a program consultant for my grad program’s immersion excursion to India. Without thinking much about it, I accepted the offer having no idea what I was getting into. I had participated on a couple of these programs as a student and fell in love with travel. But not just travel for travel, I fell in love with encounters. I’ve traveled (obvi if you’ve read any of this blog); I’ve done what I call “resort travel” (staying in 4-5 star hotels which are essentially a little America in another country), I’ve engaged in cultural immersion (the first one in my early 20s living in Siena Italy per 4 mesi to learn my favorite language), and I’ve done the professional immersion program which I feel has the potential to be life-changing. Each program (in Italy, Mexico, and India) has changed my life and over again. The professional programs are remarkable probably because they are tailored to learning about mental health issues in the host culture and so the activities create an intimate atmosphere filled with activities that tug on your heartstrings. My undergraduate experience befriending locals and having dinner at a friend’s osteria and spending time at my new friend’s family villa in Toscana are unforgettable – the memories still bring me joy. But the cultural encounters in the graduate psych programs are incomparable. We befriend locals that have passion for humanity and are doing the same work under more difficult conditions than those experienced by the average American. These encounters touch a different part of my heart because I can verily sense the commonality amongst all of humanity. There are these pockets of moments for me during an immersion program where it feels like I have grasped onto the idea that I cannot afford to unlearn. It is so simple but immensely valuable and incredibly easy to forget once at home and doing the damn thing – it is that we are all the same. Just people.
In some remote area in Veracruz Mexico in August of 2008, I commented about the universality of human beings during a group process on a night where it was storming. The group of about 15 adults sat in a circle under the roof of a patio which was the backyard of an old and almost vacant hotel where we had just had dinner. A student responded to my statement by commenting on the import of recognizing differences between individuals and not washing people out by only looking at the sameness. So to avoid any misunderstanding now, I would like to add that I do think that differences are important – after all, in history all too often cultures lose themselves when co-existing with a dominant and powerful other. I think that recognizing both our differences and sameness is necessary and helpful. Finding a groove in holding both is the key to intercultural competence.
These trips provide a way for us to experience ourselves in a new way – in a way that provokes us to think about who we are, who they are, and what we tell ourselves about our differences and sameness. I am excited to start this journey which is going to fly by all too fast… this time as one who is partly responsible for the cultivation of these learning experiences for others, and who all the while never ceases to be a student as well.