When I was a kid, I loved to read biographies. I wanted to know what other people’s lives were like, even the simple things like what foods did they eat, and if they had time for fun, what did they do? Stories shape a child’s view of life, help them learn how to solve (or avoid) problems, help them decide how to act, what to strive for, and what is important. Once upon a time, family stories and culture stories were told verbally by parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and that’s how we learned. As books became more affordable and readily available, we could read stories about other cultures and people in far away lands — this opened doors to different opportunities and new potential lives. Photography opened more doors, as did sound recordings and movies. Television became available in the 1950s, and suddenly scenes from all over the world (including wars) were right there in our living rooms. Personal computers and the Internet brought an instant world of stories into our lives. Now we are overwhelmed with stories.
In the midst of this glut of stories from around the world, I still find myself wanting to know about individual people. I grew up hearing about “the Communist threat,” and remember when they built the Berlin Wall, and my amazement when they took it down. But it took Geneva to bring it all to life for me. She grew up during World War II in Germany, and lived in East Berlin on the other side of the wall. I met her through the Internet, and eventually we visited her there in Berlin and in what was once East Germany. I remember her generosity, even while suspicion clouded her relationships.
When I was a girl, I loved stories about Japan and other areas of Asia. Eventually I became a pen pal with a university student named Fumio, who wanted to improve his grasp of English. I even got to meet him when he came to the United States, and hope someday to visit him and his family in Japan. Because of Fumio, I understand so much more about the culture of Japan, and how it is changing. Real lives, real stories.
Now I have family in England, and we were able to visit them a few years ago. Another island, like Japan, whose people have had an effect on much of the world. 🙂 As it happens, most of my ancestors came from Europe, so many of the cultural stories I grew up with were European. To be there, to walk into a pub that has been there for hundreds of years, to see the landscape, makes those stories more real for me. Some day I hope to visit Scotland, too. My ancestors from Paisley were still weaving cloth when they came to the United States, in a specific building on their farm. More stories.
I have other Internet friends, and they live around the world. Some of them I have never met in person, though I cherish the hope I will some day. And I read blogs. And while some of them have lives very similar to mine, every once in a while there is a comment, or an even more subtle attitude, that makes me realize and appreciate the differences.
Of course, you don’t need to travel the world to glimpse other lives. I live in an area with a small population, but find it fascinating to talk with friends, relatives, and other people in the tribal, Hmong, and Hispanic cultures to get a feel for the slightly different rhythm of their lives, of the things they take for granted. I appreciate them. Or there are the economic differences, and how those have shaped people’s lives. I’ve met (and learned from) homeless people, and people with quite a bit of money. To people in the midst of it, this is the way the world is.
Have you every imagined what it would be like to live in a different story? In a different place, a different culture, a different economy, whatever? To have to do the same every day things — eat, wear clothes, work, interact with people, maybe raise children — but in a different setting?