In Mark Twain’s book, Innocents Abroad, there are key values that stand out in the context of my time abroad in Shanghai, China and in Tel Aviv, Israel. The first of these revolves around the central concerns with a lifetime of isolation. By isolation, Twain refers to geographical seclusion in terms of living, working and studying within one community, one town, one state or even one country. Coming from a small town into a city as grand as New York City, we may feel lost in the rush of the people and the advanced pace of life. Many people describe the city as challenging, powerful, overwhelming or even life changing. For those raised in the United States, to move to New York City and find such striking ways to describe the experience could only mean one thing – their identities have been shifted. They have been opened to a melting pot of lifestyles and cultures.
When we realize that venturing from just one city to another can bring such internal recognition, we should be wise to travel broader and become more acquainted with the unfamiliar. In doing so, we unleash our inner wisdom and open the humbling possibilities of another social system of culture, style and politics. Twain recognizes this notion when he says that the “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” To better understand empathy and compassion, we must introduce ourselves to diversity, which comes by venturing out of the security of our geographical comfort zones – whether that be a neighborhood, a city, a country, or any enclosed regions. If we have the capacity to do so – mentally, physically and financially – there should be no question in prioritizing the effort to become one of the people of the wonderful global community.
Following this notion of isolation, another key value to understand is that we too are not isolated when we venture into a new culture. The world is much more connected than we even know. Twain recognizes this obliviousness people encounter when he asks, “why will people be so stupid as to suppose themselves the only foreigners among a crowd of ten thousand persons?” In Israel, we see the Diaspora life and a state established under the foundation of immigration. Israel fosters Jewish culture, by politically, socially and economically encouraging Jewish immigration from all over the world. Israel also encourages international exchange programs for Jewish and non-Jewish global undergraduates. Jerusalem, too, is holy for not just Jews, but also Christians and Muslims. By these means, it is far unrealistic to assume I am the only Indian-American non-Jewish young woman in Tel Aviv. Even in China, where the 5-Year Plan has been encouraging the increase in international immigration for study, work and research purposes, it is far unrealistic to assume I am the only Indian-American young woman in Shanghai. The world, in corners across the East and the West, is more of a melting pot than we have grown to understand. As nations begin to depend upon and increase relations with one another, this trend would only continue to develop in the near future.
Twain makes another great point regarding the unparalleled gift that comes with venturing into a foreign culture. He recognizes this gift when he says that, “it surprises [him] sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.” When we are thrown into the unfamiliar, we begin to understand that we are able to not just survive, but rather thrive, in a system with diverse values and beliefs. In other words, we realize that the language of humanity, of compassion, and of understanding – is universal.