Culture and context

A consistent thread of thinking through my experience of engaging with local people on my travels is the realisation of both sameness and enormous differences. People are fundamentally the same, but context, opportunities, wealth, values etc. are often entirely different. The questions that arose for me from these experiences is ‘how different I be, my life, and my behaviour be if I had been born, raised and lived in a different cultural context and physical location?’

My conclusion from thinking about this is that almost everything would be completely different. If I were to assume that there was some soul I have that remained the same, I think there would still be some essence of Andrew that shone through. But, the way that essence expressed itself in the world may be completely different. Below I’ve described three contexts I have seen that may have resulted in different outcomes:

  1. Iranian in Tehran,
  2. Pakistani villager born into poverty in Balochistan, and
  3. Indian from some mountain village in Uttaranchal

1. In Iran I could have grown up in a polluted city, after a revolution that turned a relatively liberal nation into one that was more closed and living with international sanctions and the threat of war from the US. Women around me would wear the hajib, and there would be restrictions on internet and media content. What would I do, who would I be? A worker in the city after very fortunate education at a university, at best (?) a activist against injustice (either Iranian, or foreign)…?

2. If I was a Baloch, I likely would have grown up very poor,  wandering across borders, perhaps also with different concepts of sanitation, leading to different health issues and perhaps shorter life. Perhaps most of my ‘work’ most work is done outside the law: marginal farming land, few rains, and no other industry to speak of may mean I was running drugs across the border. And, in my spare time, fighting against the Pakistani government for the rights of the region and our fair share of the oil income earned from our natural resources….?

3. If born in the lush, green pars of northern India complete with some serious poverty but also pervasive spirituality what would I be doing? Who would I be? What would I know? What would be on my mind all day? It seems that relative to the previous two options, there would have been some more opportunities for education, engagement with foreigners and other cultures and languages. There would also be the strong attraction of the cities and the growing opportunities for wealth. But would I end up there repairing bikes, sewing clothes, or getting a decent education and ending up in an office or univeristy…?

Although the descriptions of these three scenarios are shallow, this has been a good experiment in imagining what assumptions and beliefs I hold now that could be questioned, and that when engaging with other people may need to be suspended in the interests of really connecting with them. This is a useful perspective to be able to take to hold and my beliefs more lightly.

In some ways it is also challenging the concept of free will, and my identity as some rational individual responsible for everything that happens to me, and the impact made by me in the world.. In all these contexts both the range of options and the mindset I had when considering  (even the same) life choices would all have been vastly different – the choices and the chooser would be completely different. Imagine how differently life would unfold for me, how different ‘I’ would be in these contexts.

I wonder, if I was Andrew the Baloch, looking at Andrew the traveling Australian, what it would be like to see myself? Would we would connect, be repulsed, or not even lift our heads in acknowledgement as we passed each other on the street?

If all that would remain common amongst the different ‘Andrews’ is that I would be human, then it is yet another thinking-route for me to develop empathy with everyone and anyone I meet – ‘that could be me’ or ‘that IS me, just born into slightly different circumstances’. That final point is perhaps the one I should always ask anyway – how would I like to be treated and engaged with if I were the person on the other side of the conversation? What can I do to create the circumstances such that wherever I am, and EVERYWHERE the context and culture is supportive of people developing their full potential?

The other thread of thinking that emerges from this is the degree to which my context has supported the changes in my life. That is, if context and culture shape everything, then what contexts and cultures should I deliberately expose myself in order to develop into the type of person I would like to be? I guess it is only now in my life that I have become consciously aware of this, in this way. And so now have the opportunity to choose, consciously, to shift to a different cultural or geographical context in order to support the next steps I want to take. e.g. In my life, how would I know to meditate, go on long bike rides, go to Sweden,

So?

And, even as I get close to come conclusion in this writing, I realise that this is the age-old nature-nurture debate experienced more personally. If I think about great people in history, I wonder, if their circumstances were different would it have still worked out the same? Would Gandhi have been Gandhi, Buddha attained enlightenment, Hitler amassed so much power, George W Bush become so influential?

[Footnote – this above post implies a question that is almost perfectly answered by Malcolm Gladwell in his new book. See later post here.]

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