Points of Experience

It’s hard to admit it was last year when I last mentioned my trip to Belize in the spring (and I had to say it–the joke’s too good not to). On the bright side, with many thanks to my contributors, I’ve reached twelve percent of my fundraising goal! If you’re able to help, you can make a donation here. If you’re still not convinced, keep reading and hopefully I’ll change your mind.

I promised this post would be a look straight to the heart of my application, but I’d forgotten just how expansive the application process actually was: typed all together, it’s nearly a full six pages in Microsoft Word. Of course, not all of this is relevant, and some of it I’ve already mentioned, so I’ll only share the highlights, but hopefully it’ll accomplish my goal of helping to share with everyone why I’m especially eager to go on this trip.

Most of the questions concerned me and consisted of talking about my experiences. How did I hear about the ASB program? Have I ever traveled, and if so, where and when and why? What has been my exposure to diversity and different cultures? These are all questions regular readers can probably answer adequately on my behalf, so I won’t bore you by going on about them all here (and if you’re not a regular reader, I shall simply point you to my “Reflection on Reality” tab to find some of my other experiences, or to the tag cloud on the right).

This leads me to the first question–which is also rather exciting. The question was simple: Which aspects of a cultural experience most intrigue you? At the time, I hadn’t really begun to think of culture through the eyes of a culture-maker, only through the eyes of a culture-consumer. There’s American culture, Jewish culture, GLBT culture, college culture, math culture, and on and on…

Then came November. With November came the beginning of one of the first great tales of the mythology I’ve been constructing from the ground up (and at times from the top down and the sides in) for nearly half my life, and more than that depending on whether you count its inception at the birth of the stories or the characters in them. Regardless, when I plucked people out of thin air and placed them upon a world that in a few words felt as living as ours, I began to gain new perspectives on culture–and what it means for cultures to differ. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but writing about different imaginary cultures was itself a cultural experience.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to digress for the moment.

It’s hard to say which aspects of a cultural experience most intrigue me because there are so many I could consider. On the one hand, I’ve always loved learning about different groups–I remember as a child watching shows on the Discovery Channel about ancient Egyptians or the Mayans and it amazed me that there were people who lived so long ago that could build such wondrous monuments that still stand today.

On the other hand, growing up in a Jewish household, food is also very important to me: In Judaism, we have special foods for almost every holiday and these foods tell a story about our religion and our history (and in Israel, eating traditional Jewish foods was simply amazing–and so delicious, it’s causing my mouth to water as I write this). However, food is temporary, and I can vividly remember the many trips we took in Israel and how being able to experience the land enriched our experiences so tremendously: hiking in the Negev, swimming in the Kinneret, crawling through the tunnels in Jerusalem–being physically surrounded by living history was mind-numbing. Not to mention all the people I met! From the woman in Tel Aviv who felt as much a Jew as I am yet didn’t believe in God to the man I went running with one evening, to the people who gave me directions in Jerusalem. These interactions, though mostly small, were glimpses into a life I hadn’t known before.

I suppose one of the hardest parts about this question is that each experience is different. In Israel, the land and the food and the people I met stand out among the most intriguing experiences I had. However, it is hard to say if these will be the same points that most intrigue me in other trips. I love learning and I love new experiences. I don’t think there is any part of either activity that could ever bore me–and maybe that’s naive to say, but at the moment, it feels genuinely honest to say it, and by that I mean I would happily engage myself in any trip I go on and I would seek to gain the most from every experience–why else would I even be interested?

That itself is a very Jewish thing to do–ramble on about an idea, citing some experiences as proof, and then turning the question around. But what can I say, it’s the culture I grew up in.

Joking aside (thought it’s perhaps too true to be “j/k”), I’ve come a long way since writing this–after all, it was only a week or two after I wrote this that I went on my trip to Cherokee in September when three days inspired a week’s worth of posts reflecting on the experiences and perspectives I had acquired through both thinking and doing, and more importantly, through experiencing.

It wasn’t just Cherokee that changed me, though; as I said, living through my writing has opened my eyes to the vastness of cultural diversity, and reading about writing since then has only broadened my appreciation therein. I’ve also watched a number of TED Talks lately that address the differences and similarities we share and highlight some overlooked details of the significance culture has not only on our language and traditions, but also on our way of thinking. One video in particular, called “Weird, or Just Different?,” illustrates this beautifully in under three minutes.

It’s the small nuances in this manner that give distinction to differences–and meaning to the meaningless. Shortly after the adventure began in this year’s NaNoWriMo novel, my hero was struck by a poison dart near a village built by the people of the lightning goddess, where he was taken to their healer. When he awoke, he was baffled to see the healer seemed constantly dejected and refused to accept any words of thanks from him at all. It didn’t make any sense until his companion explained the villagers, born under the goddess of ingenuity and new ideas, saw healing as ordinary, something that was needed daily–and because it wasn’t something novel and exciting, it held no real worth in their community. Not too far off in the story, his party will reach a group of people who are praised worldwide for their healing capabilities; however, they do not heal for the sake of healing, they heal because they believe so strongly that everything is connected, the health of the individual and the health of the whole are one and the same.

Perspective also shifts in the moment in ways we could never have foreseen. Just yesterday I was fortunate to be able to go on a skiing trip with some of my closest friends. Being that my story starts in the winter, I was eager to take in all the details of the snowy landscapes around me, and when the sun went down, I set those expectations aside. But you know what the most amazing thing was? When we were driving home around ten o’clock, we looked out the window and saw the cities far beneath the mountain lit up like the images of the earth at night taken from space, and through the darkness we could see the slightly blue glow of street lamps and the yellowed light coming through the windows of houses and homes. It took my breath away. It changed the whole trip in an instant.

I’d like to say the first thing I’ll notice when I get to Belize is X, Y, and Z, but I know so completely that I know whatever I say won’t be the case, I can’t even think of anything to say. I thought when I got to Israel I’d feel suddenly awed to be there; instead it felt strikingly the same. I thought I would cry the first time I saw the Western Wall; instead, my first thought was, “It’s smaller in person.” I thought when I got back to New York on the trip home I wouldn’t think anything as beautiful as Israel; instead I noticed how Israel and the United States were painted in different palettes, and though different, they were beautiful just the same.

I guess what I’m trying to say is the aspect of a cultural experience that intrigues me most is the experience itself–because no matter how many preconceived notions I might carry, they all mean nothing in the moment–and in that moment, the experience is everything.

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