I feel so grateful to have spent the past three weeks abroad. Grateful for the privilege to travel, grateful for leaving Nice one short day before the attack, grateful to put my seven years of Spanish into practice, and above all for the ability to breathe. While in Europe, I discovered that most people tend to cast off others who appear different than themselves, and instead need to open their eyes to realize many missed opportunities to connect and grow.
As an over-committed college student, I find myself constantly searching for a time and place to put the world down – even for a moment.
I had never been here before: first France, then Spain. Everywhere I went I verbally declared to some taxi driver, or a stranger on line to a museum that this was the best place I had ever been in my whole life. Each day, as I traversed a new village, a new city, or a new culture, I was given the opportunity to zone in on where I was – I was finally present.
I wasn’t running from class to class or from a cappella rehearsal to never-ending meetings. It took until day three to finally feel the anxiety seep from my head to my feet as I adjusted to this reprieve from emails; the little wifi gave me just enough power to contact my family and check in with the world.
However, in leaving the world behind, I was seeking clarity. I wanted to obtain some profound sense of self that accompanied some type of independency. Each day as I failed to find this monumental discovery that I had hoped for, I discovered something different. Something I wouldn’t have found if I was plugged into my phone or if I had been searching for it.
Instead, I was completely plugged into the people. This was natural, because I have always been fascinated with connection. I try to connect myself daily to the people around me, and I created a program at Penn that encourages connection, called TableTalk. With that said, each passerby, each family, each obvious tour group, each set of parents running after their little kids, and each couple eating a meal one table away caught my attention. I acquired an intrinsic fascination with identifying the people around me and trying to gain some tiny window into their lives.
With this fascination, I began to play a game. This game was really quite simple. When I would discover a new person, an approaching group, or a series of individuals positioned next to me at various times throughout the day, I would first ask myself to make guesses. I would ask what language I thought they spoke and where I believed they came from.
As soon as I had decided what I thought I knew, I would attempt to find out the answer. I would attempt to overhear a conversation or analyze belongings to look for some indication of nationality or dialect. Most times, I unashamedly meandered most furtively towards the person, becoming uncomfortably close in pursuit of the reality.
To my surprise, I was almost always wrong. In Madrid, I thought I had spotted an American family from Texas, when in reality they were Italian speakers from Switzerland. In Sevilla, I approached a group of kids who I thought were native Spanish speakers, when in fact they were giggling in German. I even started a conversation with a family on the train to Cordoba, who I had suspected to be Jews from New York, when they were actually from San Francisco, and currently living in Barcelona.
After playing this game for two weeks I realized that most of us neglect to take the next step – to find the answer. We tend to profile, stereotype, and cast off others who look completely different than us before even hypothesizing if we are wrong.
Imagine what would happen if we all started playing this game and took it to the next level. What if this game evolved from simple stereotyping, to actually reaching out to find out more about the people next to us. We would at first be cautious to admit fault, but soon after be incredibly surprised to realize how little we know about the people we think we know so much about.
Lastly, the piece that I wish we all realized is that once we reach out, once we take that next step, we would naturally find out how much we have in common with those people we instantaneously cast off as completely different. If I hadn’t reached out to the family next to me on the train, I would have never known how much they loved Hamilton as much as I do, or the countless restaurant suggestions waiting for me in Barcelona, but more importantly I would have overlooked an opportunity to grow.
Want to play? I think you’d readily be shocked and happily surprised by the little we truly know about the people around us. Once you play, then the next person will, and before we know it – eyes across the world will start opening to the people around us and those eyes will be quickly inspired to find out more.