Though there are many people who claim to be global citizens, I’m one of the few who actually qualifies. I’ve lived, worked, and studied in many different countries.
“Where are you from?” is a seemingly innocuous question, but not for me. It is one of the hardest questions for me to answer truthfully. People wonder about my accent, my appearance, and/or my demeanor, but I have no ‘right’ answer. I am a blend of many cultures and countries, so limiting myself to a single country or culture does not do justice to who I am.
I am a global citizen.
I have learned something new from each and every place I’ve been, and I’d like to share a few nuggets of experience from four of the most outstanding.
My first childhood memories are from Japan. Even though I was born in Nepal, I moved to Sendai, Japan when I was a year and a half, so Japanese is my first language. Until middle school, I did not know any other language or culture besides Japanese. Japanese cultural traditions taught me to always be polite and respectful not only to elders but also to nature.
The Japanese Shinto culture believes that everything has a spirit/soul—or kami, in Japanese. So we respect everything. A river has a spirit, a mountain has a soul, the wind, a dog, even the coffee cup you use every morning. Because we respect everything, Japanese people are not quick to throw something away that is not broken just because it is old. People will keep using the item with respect. Even if it breaks and can still be repaired, then they will try to fix it. In Japan, I learned to respect not only people and things but also nature.
I was a teenager when my mother took me to India. I was born of an American father and Japanese mother in Nepal, and thus knew that the Indian subcontinent was where both of my parents lived when they were young. Both being Buddhists, they had a special love for the country.
I grew up listening to tales of India and Afghanistan, in a house full of rare artifacts––Buddhist statues, ancient mala beads, Tibetan incense, exotic gemstones, and Oriental carpets that my parents had collected over their many years in Central and Southeast Asia.
Even though I had been told tales of my first visit to Calcutta, India before I was one month old, I had no conscious recollection. So there was a hint of familiarity with India long before I visited as a teen.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in New Delhi was the horrible smell of garbage mixed with spices from the market. The old city was full of people; poor people, rich people, homeless people––monks, children and the elderly. I distinctly remember when we landed at night in New Delhi, and the taxi ride from the airport to our hotel. I saw row upon row of people sleeping outside. At first I thought they were dead, but my mom explained that they were just homeless people sleeping on the pavement.
At first I hated India. The cities were full of beggars. They were always asking for money as soon as we set foot outside of the hotel. Some beggars were even my age; some were filthy children; some women were holding tiny babies as they pleaded for money, but different women held the same babies on different days.
I hated the fact that people were always trying to sell us stuff, from taxi rides to famous tourist venues, cheaper hotels at which to stay. They were consistently nagging at us to spend money.
But what I hated the most was my mom insisted that we were NOT to give any money to beggars. She said that if we were to give to even one, then a mob of hundreds would come asking for more. She said there were much better ways to help the poor in this country, but giving money to beggars wasn’t the way. It was the first time I felt helpless, privileged, and useless.
After traveling around India for over month, trekking in the Himalayas, visiting both large cities and small towns, I finally started to perceive the real beauty of India.
The people were exceptionally nice, the food was amazing, and the beauty of nature was breathtaking. That trip planted the seed in me: the desire to live a purposeful life. I wanted to create positive changes in a negative world.
Even if that change was small, I wanted my work to contribute to a better world.
During my junior year in college, I spent one semester as a study-abroad student in South Africa. I focused my studies on Community Development. I loved the experience so much that I decided to attend graduate school in South Africa.
I was accepted at the University of Cape Town’s sociology department as a Master’s student in Development Studies. I wanted to learn about the intricacies of International Development from the perspective of receiving aid rather than giving aid.
I finally felt like I was going to learn how to help the poor people in developing countries, the desire I developed from my trip to India. South Africa is a country of tremendous inequality, with the ultra-rich and the extreme-poor living so close to each other that the disparity is unavoidable. It was so in-your-face that ignoring it was impossible. Too often I had that awkward feeling while drinking cup of coffee at a trendy cafe while poor people begged for spare change outside the window. I felt privileged, guilty, and ashamed.
I was stuck on the horns of a moral dilemma. I had to learn how to live in South Africa’s rich culture as a “wealthy” college student studying how to “help people” without feeling internally conflicted by the poverty visible all around me.
Spending two and a half years in South Africa forced me to be uncomfortably aware of my privilege every single day. I learned that, in the end, all you can do is to try to be a good person with every small action and interaction, whether the other person is rich or poor; male or female; black or white; foreign or local. That experience was extremely humbling.
My nine-month backpacking journey from Peru to California.
After I finished my graduate program I packed my rucksack and traveled to South and Central America with my best friend. I bought a one-way ticket to Peru and together we traveled via local transportation all the way back to California… we explored Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. I appreciated the family-oriented cultures that always welcomed us with open arms.
I loved all the amazing food we ate, the salsa music that we danced to until dawn, and the warm ocean where we swam naked. Above all, I loved the relationships we made and all the human connections that we experienced. The local people seemed happy with their simple lives.
Towards the end of that journey, we were violently robbed—our taxi was held-up at gunpoint. That experience left us with nothing but physical and emotional scars. I lost everything: my passport, my money, my camera, and even all of my clothes.
We had two options: go home or keep traveling. We chose to keep traveling. From a small second-hand store we each bought a small backpack, a change of clothes and a toothbrush. That was it; that was all we needed.
We traveled light. Not only were we physically lighter, but, surprisingly, we realized that we had become lighter internally as well. We felt like we were walking on clouds. We could walk for longer distances with the smaller packs.
The connections and relationships we cultivated with people were more meaningful. Even the way we viewed nature was more meaningful because we were not busy trying to capture the moment through a camera lens.
We were capturing those moments with our eyes so as to keep them in our hearts forever. We were truly living in the moment. We were living in the present, we were living mindfully. I realized that I did not need much; material possessions were not important, and living life simply gave us more in return.
I learned to respect everything and everyone in Japan because a higher spirit resides in everything. In India, I realized that I needed to live my life with a purpose greater than myself. In South Africa, I learned to be humble and kind, and from my backpacking journey, I learned to let go and live simply.