The world is your oyster, grads, but only if you pry it open
Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey offers a piece of advice to graduates: Some time in your life, live outside your home country.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
It is the time of year to dish out advice to graduates. Here is mine. Some time in your life, live outside the United States. Not only will you be in another world, you will more clearly see the world you came from, and who you are.
Sometimes it changes you. In a recent column, I argued that the U.S. government was acting wrongly in letting its embassy and consulates in China be used as sanctuaries. Readers emailed me for and against. Many of those who agreed with me said they had worked overseas.
So had I. From 1989 to 1993 I worked in Hong Kong as a magazine editor — and probably I would not have written that column otherwise.
Americans see themselves as a practical people, but from Hong Kong, Americans in their political aspect seemed like a sentimental people, a naive people. Ross Perot was running for president then, and he threatened to stop trading with China.
To people in great big America, maybe such an action was thinkable; in Hong Kong, it was nuts. Our vegetables came from China. Our drinking water came from China. Perot seemed to have no understanding of the history, or the culture, of the Middle Kingdom.
That the Hong Kong people had a different view of it did not automatically make them right. About China, I thought they were. On other things, though, being overseas showed me how American I was, and in ways I was proud of.
One time I was sick and went to a doctor. After he examined me I had to wait outside his office for my prescription. A nurse called me to a window with bottles of pills.
"Take a red one every four hours and a white one twice a day," she said.
"What are they?" I asked.
"They are your medication," she said impatiently.
"Yeah, but ... What are they?"
"The doctor will have to tell you that, and he is with another patient. Shall I make another appointment?"
At that moment I had no sympathy for the culture around me.
I worked with people from a dozen countries. All were changed by working abroad, those from traditional cultures most of all.
A colleague from Pakistan told me that after living in a cosmopolitan city for several years, he could not go back to a traditional culture. He was contaminated. I never heard a Westerner say that, but I heard plenty say that being abroad had changed their thinking.
Politically, they seemed less supportive of America throwing its weight around. It is more difficult to condemn a people, impose economic pain on them or drop bombs on them after you have lived among them — or among any people different from you. The world outside the United States seems much more immovable when you are in it.
I was a kid when the Peace Corps started, and I remember the hoopla about all the good it was going to do. It was going to change the world. I became skeptical of that, and decades later, when I met the agency's director, I pressed her on it.
The agency's improvement of the world was difficult to measure, she said. But one thing was sure. The Peace Corps had changed the young Americans who were in it. The experience opened their eyes. It set them on tracks to new careers — in academia, in the diplomatic service, in global business. It gave them friends overseas and joined them to a fraternity of former volunteers who recognized each other for the rest of their lives.
And though I had never been in it, I knew what she was talking about.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com