Living in a Global Village

by Simon Goland, August 8, 2012

It is perhaps both ironic and also uncanny that this Reflection comes in parallel with a whirlwind of the various and diverse places I am traveling through these days. The idea for the topic was born at Hollyhock, on Cortes Island, which is located in the northern Gulf Islands of British Columbia (though the the idea itself is certainly not new for me). The direction kept crystallizing as I went back to Vancouver, from there to Seattle, and now China – Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai – with a group of students of Bainbridge Graduate Institute. The expression “global village” keeps taking a more tangible and visceral form, bringing further ideas, insights, and questions.

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

It is very tempting to think that, as the world is rapidly becoming a “global village,” we are all going to know people we never had a chance to connect with before,  understand our neighbours deeply, be they local or virtual, have no conflicts, all the while moving towards a friendly utopia with our village neighbours. After all, even the word “village” has implications of small, friendly, connected, and a place like “Cheers” where everybody knows your name. Not to mention the new age adage of “we are all one.”

But is this really so?

“The process of changing a relationship requires a willingness to change. It requires a sense of openness, a sense of reciprocity, a kind of vulnerability. You must be willing to be influenced by another person.”

On the flight from Seattle to Beijing, a middle-aged Chinese man sat beside me, and while he was sitting near the window, he was talking (quite loudly) to his friend who sat on the other side of the isle. I was stuck in between their animated conversation, without understanding a word they said. At some point, I pulled out a little bag of dried berries, as I always take some of my own food on flights. My neighbour looked at it, pointed at the bag, and then reached in and took a few berries. “Sure, go right ahead and try some,” I thought. He, apparently, liked them and nodded in approval. During the whole 11-hour flight, this was our only interaction.

When visiting a green energy company in Beijing, we were at a briefing in a very modern and sophisticated office building, by any Western standards. At some point, I left to go to the washroom (which is sometimes called a “restroom” or a “toilet” – depending on a location). Only when I was done, I realized that there is no toilet paper in the stall. Apparently, it is located outside, right beside the sinks. A minor, yet important, difference.

“Living in a global village really means we now live closer together with our differences.”

Whether one is at Hollyhock or Shanghai, there is a tendency to gravitate towards what is known, comfortable, and familiar. Sure, we would venture and explore and try new things, to have a new experience, learn something, and expand our comfort zone. Yet, when that is done, we will retract back to our comfort, our shell, where we know the rules of the game. For instance, it has been interesting to observe the eating habits of our group of students here in China. During the first few days, people were more adventurous in trying new Chinese dishes. Slowly, yet consistently, as the days progressed, the number of vegetarians around the dining tables keeps growing. So is the yearning to find Western food for dinner.

Walking through the many markets and shopping centers here in China is a rich and vibrant adventure. Crowds, noise, colours – all create a fascinating tapestry of experience. Yet, it can also be annoying, when you are constantly being stopped by vendors who are trying to sell you whatever they have, often in a very direct and persistent manner. The irony here is that we Westerners get annoyed by this phenomena – which originates in the “consumerism above all” culture that the West has been actively and persistently promoting and spreading all over the world.

How do we deal with our differences? How do we embrace, respect, acknowledge, and integrate what each of us brings into the mix, when we come in contact with “the other?” And how to we remember that “the other,” even when appearing dressed like we do and behave similarly, is still different in many ways, behaviours, and thought patterns?

“So I’m curious, my fellow creators. Since you and I are in charge of making a New Earth — not just breaking down the dying culture — where do we begin? What stories do we want at the heart of our experiments? What questions will be our oracles?”