It's 5:45 AM, my mind's foggy from JYSD (Junior Year Sleep Deprivation), and the Southern California sun is just beginning to sliver through my window shades. However, I'm at my desk, huddled around a computer, talking to a young, disabled woman named Thao Van from Hanoi, Vietnam. And as the room continues to brighten, I can sense that it's about time to ask the question that has, in a figurative sense, come to define much of my last two years: Can you tell me your story?
"Vietnam has 6.7% are people with disability. I am one them..." she begins to slowly type into our virtual classroom. We spend a few minutes checking verb tenses, adding and subtracting the appropriate pronouns, and refining the sentences before she continues:
"Almost them doesn't have a job cause is they don't have ability, skill."
Thao and I are communicating through an online classroom, which allows us to hold a meaningful dialogue, run through a few textbook pages, and tell each other our personal and cultural stories as if we weren't thousands of miles apart. She goes on to tell me of the societal limitations that she has faced as a disabled person in Vietnam, of how she has learned to adapt to the complex Vietnamese culture, and of her hopes and dreams for the future.
While this insight into her particular narrative--and, consequentially, much of the Vietnamese narrative--might not have many "practical" uses in my life, it is helping to bring me something that is growing increasingly vital in the 21st Century: a sense of global compassion and understanding.
A little over two years ago, I stumbled upon a passage in The Wayfinders--anthropologist Wade Davis' work on the vital teachings of ancient cultures--that, in its simplicity and earnestness, profoundly changed the way that I saw my place in the world. Davis writes that, "the world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit." And as I listen to Thao detailing her way of life, her realities, her truth, I begin to feel myself inching closer to touching this multifarious human spirit. Less poetically speaking, I start to feel like some of my work over the last two years might be headed in the right direction.
Not long after reading Davis' work, I started developing a program, now called X-Change the World, which would use an online educational platform to connect students in America with students, like Thao, from across the world. I had just recently returned from traveling through Southeast Asia--from the remote hills of Burma to the luminescent streets of Luang Prabang--interviewing young men and women who had been marginalized by their governments and a variety of other societal and cultural factors. In these interviews, I noticed the profound power that an English education can have on the lives of Southeast Asian youth; I could see that a strong hold on the English language could give youth the tools necessary to earn a well-paying job, and, subsequently, live a happier, more comfortable, and more fulfilling life.
Further, I began to recognize that Western connection could help youth learn the colloquialisms and nuances unattainable in a traditional classroom, and, ultimately, gain the secure grasp of the English language needed to apply for these well-paying jobs.
I returned back to Los Angeles, and, as the 50+ interviews slowly sank in, my outlook on life was starting to change. I was beginning to think back to Davis' core message: that the world is composed of an inextricable, nearly infinite web of different ways to see the world, different perspectives, different lenses by which to understand humanity and everything around us.
And when I looked around at my peers, I saw a culture almost entirely consumed by its one way of life. The American way of life. A culture so consumed by SAT scores, the perks of being vegan, and Kim Kardashian's pregnancy that it was blind to any other models of reality. I recognized that very few of my peers have been as fortunate as I have to come face to face with, for lack of an original term, any manifestations of the human spirit different from their own.
I thought about how our world, with the technological advancements of the 21st century, is just growing closer and closer together and more and more globally interconnected. Thus, I started to see the utmost necessity of fostering a young population that has an understanding of and compassion for the other ways of being. At the same time, I was remembering how powerfully a western connection could aid in both the professional and personal growth of youth around the world. I realized in this moment that I could create a bridge, a connection between students in the developing and western words.
This bridge has materialized as X-Change the World, which uses an online educational platform to bring English speaking skills--and other educational opportunities--to youth across the world, while bringing life-long, cross-cultural friendships and global understanding to students both here and abroad.
After running a successful pilot project in June of 2012, X-Change the World now connects Burmese refugees in Northern Thailand, students in Kenya, Laos, and Vietnam, with students from Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, and St. Albans Academy in Washington D.C.
And as I sit at my computer in June of 2013, with the sun now lighting my room in a luminescent glow, Thao finishes her story in a quite meaningful way:
"When computers and Internet appear in Vietnam it seem is a big change with disable...they can now connect with all the world."
If you would like to connect with all the world too, and join X-Change the World, please visit xchangetheworld.com, find X-Change the World on Facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.