Last summer I traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This summer I traveled to Korea and Japan. The trips were very different in just about every respect: culture, geography, people, prices of things, etc. About the only similarity was the attention- a lot-people from all four countries paid to their cellphones.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, when folks there learned I came from the United States, they often erupted with praise for our country, expressed their desire to visit and live in the US, and then asked if I would trade my ticket home for their vacation yurt on the steppe.
In contrast, the people of Korea and Japan, when they learned of my citizenship, didn’t seem all that impressed. They were kind and friendly, but in no way expressed the same enthusiasm as did their Central Asian counterparts.
More than a few things explain the contrasting responses but I can only attend to a few in this space. First, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan lived under the rule of the Soviet Union for about seventy-five years and are now independent republics developing their own market economies. The US can be seen as the victorious Cold War liberator. Where the standard of living is lower and opportunities are fewer, the promise of America shines brighter.
Korea and Japan, however, have a very different experience of the US. Japan, of course, suffered two US atomic attacks in 1945. The United States waged war against the Soviet Union, through proxy, in Korea. Both of these countries know the US not as liberator but as occupier and conqueror. History matters and people don’t forget. People in Korea and Japan didn’t recite the above history lesson to me in order to explain their reserve. I doubt many were even cognizant of their thin layer of enthusiasm. But I detected a difference between the two geographies and cultures.
When I travel, I value the perspective of others who have a very different life experience than I do. Because of their reserve-and my short time among them- I didn’t have an opportunity to glean much in the way of opinion from Japanese and Korean folk. There were a few conversations about things like fashion and popular music (my daughter is a big fan of K Pop, or Korean popular music) but I had to look elsewhere for the insight I sought about global politics and the influence of the United States.
I had several encounters with other travelers which proved very telling regarding international opinion of the United States. My family and I stayed on the cheap which included hostels and other shared accommodations. Younger travelers from places in Europe, Taiwan, China, and a few Canadians with a fondness for drink readily offered their geo-political perspectives. These travelers identified challenges and problems their own countries faced and their willingness to do so helped reduce my US centered myopia.
Federico, an Italian artist living in Germany, told me that funding for arts in Italian schools is being cut to make room for math and science training. People, when Italy backs off art, I think we have bigger problems than we thought. As in the United States, anxiety about future jobs and technical prowess fuels Italy’s refocus.
A German couple I met in Kyoto, Japan provided a great evening of conversation as we compared notes as educators. Susan, a social studies teacher well on her way to being an exalted uber teacher talked about her parents who live in the Austrian countryside. They fear that Muslim refugees moving into their community will remove them from their homes and destroy their Roman Catholic Churches. Susan was very concerned about the strong growth of nationalist fervor in Europe. As I shared my worry about nationalist fervor in my own country, we resonated with each other as only aspiring uber-teachers can, confident in the correctness of our uber-analysis.
Hans, Susan’s husband, who is training to be a physics teacher, thought I overstated the problem of the US’s uber-nationalism. Because NASA has exciting plans for Mars and lots of folks worldwide wear NASA t-shirts, there wasn’t that much to worry about, he said. He maintained the US was in pretty good shape if we are getting serious about Mars. I didn’t say this to Hans, but I wonder if the Red Planet had a problem with avid nationalists a very long time ago and that factor, more than anything else really, explains its difficulty in retaining a population.
Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise had a broad mandate to travel. Doing so expanded their ‘worldview’ and gave my brothers and I something to do after school as we devoured Star Trek reruns. For me and for many, travel expands perspective. It also helps to meet others who are concerned about the current state of affairs. I feel less solitary with my concerns and preoccupations when I meet people a half-globe away who worry about similar things. Critical conversation alone won’t fix problems or change history, but it’s a step. And, in this world of such large, seemingly indelible footprints, a step is no small thing.