When I returned to the US from Ecuador, I didn't understand why no one wanted to kiss me.
I was dumbfounded at the realization that my native United States felt like a foreign land upon return from spending time abroad. To me, the best part about traveling has always been experiencing a small slice of someone else's life and sometimes, if you're lucky, you even get to take a little bit of that lifestyle home with you. But I had taken a different lifestyle home with me and found that it didn't fit into the home to which I was returning.
As a Global Citizen Year Fellow stationed in Ecuador, I had grown so accustomed to the affectionate way that Ecuadorians often greeted one another with a quick kiss on the cheek. After spending a year living there, I found it second nature to lean in for a peck rather than extend a hand in greeting. Throughout my time in the country, this was just one of the many aspects of Ecuadorian culture that I not only cherished, but also quickly embraced as part of my daily routine. However, when I attempted to carry over traits from my Ecuadorian life into my Californian life, there were clashes. When I leaned in to greet a Californian friend with a kiss on the cheek, they often recoiled in confusion. Needless to say, after quite a few muddled, awkward reunions with friends, I realized that this wasn't working.
So here I was as a Global Citizen Year Fellow, and yet I was still struggling with the definition of a "global citizen." Is a global citizen one who can seamlessly slip in between cultures, shrugging on different customs and taking them off as easily as a coat? Or is a global citizen one that fuses cultural traditions across nations and across borders, introducing new ideas into familiar territory? Is there a way that a global citizen can be both?
These questions plagued me as I assimilated back into American society, as I started university, and as I continued to search for answers. In a class about the global environment, we examined findings from a text written by Joel E. Cohen. Cohen, an esteemed mathematical biologist at Rockefeller University, argues that utilizing the diversity of lifestyles on our planet could be beneficial for social issues. In his text, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, he suggests that this diversity could at least be useful for population dynamics:
If the world's population had the productivity of the Swiss, the consumption habits of the Chinese, the egalitarian instincts of the Swedes, and the social discipline of the Japanese, then the planet could support many times its current population without deprivation for anyone.
While Cohen's work focuses primarily on population sciences, he touches on a key theme that bridged my understanding of global citizenship. We grow up in different places with different world views even though we're all part of the same world. Because of this diversity, we all have different customs that can make our planet a better place.
However, there is a certain context in which this cultural mixing, should it occur, needs to take place. For one, there needs to be an understanding of the background to various cultural traditions and how they can be implemented. The Ecuadorian kiss, for example, holds significance to me not because of the physical act of the kiss, but because of the affection it signifies within Ecuadorian culture. Therefore, for someone to not understand the culture behind the kiss is to miss the point of the kiss entirely.
I finally realized that no one wanted to kiss me because I wasn't effectively sharing stories and facets of a different culture, but trying to force the parts that I thought were most relevant to me. The affection and hospitality of the Ecuadorian people are still some of the most valuable traits that I carry with me to this day from my time living there, but I've learned that while a quick kiss on the cheek is the easiest way to show a cordial greeting in Ecuador, it may be more effective to display that same sentiment of outward affection in a more culturally sensitive manner when in the United States. I'm still learning what that looks like exactly, but so far, I've found that a hug is a beautiful happy medium.
This is exactly what it means to be a global citizen -- to allow your experiences to transcend a moment in time, and allow that newly gained breadth of knowledge to guide your path for how you interact with others in today's globalized world. To be conscious of the great diversity of lifestyles and cultures and do your best to learn how to act appropriately, whether you know the source of globalization or not. It's simple, really. Be respectful, be cognizant, and maybe then, someone will greet you with a kiss.