Growing up as an innately curious child on a small, family-run farm in rural North Carolina, I was very lucky to have a grandmother with a well-stocked library complete with full-scale atlases (I love maps!), multiple sets of World Book encyclopedias and at least 10 years of back issues of National Geographic magazine. My marvelous farm lady grandmother had subscriptions to 25 periodicals when she passed away at the age of 91, ranging from Popular Mechanics to American Artist. What a wonderful example she was! And, yes, toss away the stereotypes here!
If I was missing, my parents usually knew I could be found in a corner somewhere reading and dreaming about exploration to far away lands. Either that or I’d actually be out exploring the forested hills where we lived. The only family trips I experienced until after finishing high school were within the state to the Appalachian mountains to visit relatives or the occasional summer trip to Myrtle Beach just across the state line in South Carolina. So, in those pre-internet days, I was left to travel via my imagination while reading about ancient civilizations–Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan and Aztec–plus more current indigenous cultures all around the planet.
In high school, I was fortunate to have a teacher for a contemporary literature class who preached ‘question, question, question…everything’ but warned us one day in class, ‘be careful and don’t see too much!’ As a 17 year old, I was somehow mature enough to understand the gravity of her comments and was deeply affected as those words resonated with something deep inside me. Unfortunately, it seems this amazing teacher wasn’t able to follow her own advice and died of cancer a few years after I graduated. I wondered secretly if her illness and untimely death were indeed confirmation of the dangers inherent in ‘seeing’ (and therefore internalizing) too much human poverty, greed and abuse of power in our world. Still, her words were yet another factor that set me on my quest for understanding and awareness to determine how I fit into the larger picture of a world that seems to be in perpetual chaos.
As a young adult, I felt the constant urge to keep moving just to experience as many different jobs and places as possible. I’ve read that researchers have identified a gene that’s perhaps left over from periods of great human migration that predisposes certain individuals with a longing to explore. David Dobbs covered the findings on this gene in a thoughtful article in National Geographic in 2013 (read his article here, but you must first sign up for NG online). While there may be a lack of consensus among scientists regarding the purposes of this gene, I choose to believe in its existence because I need an explanation for my insatiable curiosity about our world and for my restless nature.
This restless spirit has resulted in multiple careers and what often feels like far too many physical moves of household STUFF! After many years of working in the feature film and television industry, and at the age of 47, I decided to return to my university studies and make up for a lack of dedication in my youth. I felt like a kid in a candy store while studying anthropology which was a natural fit for my interests. Finally in 2003, I determined it was time for me to explore the the world outside the USA full-time so I moved to Scotland to pursue my Master’s studies. I have since moved from Europe to multiple places in Asia and last year I relocated to Latin America .
While I believe travel is one of the best ways to educate yourself about other cultures, there’s nothing that quite compares to actually living and working in a different culture, especially one that seems to be the polar opposite of the culture in which you were raised. As a university lecturer, I’ve lived and taught in China, Thailand, Iraq and Oman with a few other short stints in additional Asian countries.
The thing I value most highly from my experiences abroad is the cultural education I’ve received from each new group of students I taught. Certainly, the daily surprises and often difficult challenges that arise in each new foreign context can be incredibly stressful, but I try to use my students’ cultural lessons along with my own continuing research to help me become more aware of how to put the pieces of a real-world map together in my head. I can’t speak for others, but these experiences penetrated my very being and forced me to question my own cultural values in a way that I would never have been prompted to do if I’d remained back in the USA, ‘at home’ in my comfort zone.
So, here I am still on the road more than 15 years later, challenging myself, testing boundaries and questioning, always questioning, how I feel living in each new culture and wondering what all this tells me about my own culture and theirs.