While traveling, I am usually keenly–and hopefully humbly–aware that I am the foreigner.
In places like East Asia, it is obvious–my looks and language create clear distinctions between me and the local residents.
But during a recent trip to Italy, the separation was not so distinct, and thus, perhaps a bit confusing.
I was somewhat flattered when local Italians came up to me asking for the time–they couldn’t tell by looking at me that I don’t speak a word of their language. They saw the watch on my wrist, and so they knew I had a resource that could help them. So they asked.
An Italian young man asked me how to signal the minibus driver to stop.
Then there was the Italian girl who couldn’t figure out how to use the bus ticket validation machine.
I was pleased to be able to help each person in their need, filling in the gaps of their understanding.
But how can I teach Italians? Of what worth is my 72 hours of experience compared to their lifetime of living in that culture?
I have discovered that being an outsider can serve to equip us to help others, but it requires coming in with the posture of a learner.
Indeed, for my own survival, I had to figure out how to signal the minibus driver and how to validate my bus ticket. Having learned these necessary skills, I could then share them with others.
But beyond being a learner (or survivalist?), the greater asset is to be a good follower.
I learned how to signal the minibus by watching someone do so before the previous stop. I learned to validate my bus ticket by letting someone else get on before me. Having observed closely, I could then replicate the activity according to my own need.
But this kind of following requires humility and patience. I have to be willing to let others crowd onto the bus before me; if I rush in, I will have no example to follow. And I have to be honest about what I don’t know, and what I need. I have to be willing to make the investment of energy and awareness in order to acquire the resources I need to go about my day.
Having acquired these new skills, with relatively minimal experience, I then have something to offer to the benefit of others…even Italians, on their home ground.
Am I the teacher of Italy? Certainly not, if that statement comes from a place of arrogance or American imperialism.
But, from the place of being a learner, a follower, I can effectively equip myself–not just to tend to my own needs–but to be available to serve others. In that respect, not only am I the teacher of Italy, but I can become the teacher of the world.
Another reflection from my trip to Italy can be found in the next post.