The most obvious milestone in my life occurred just weeks ago, when I moved to South Korea armed with a Lonely Planet guide, Korean-English dictionary, and no friends within 6,000 miles. I could talk endlessly about the triumphs and countless fails I have faced since moving to Seoul, but this milestone, while obvious, is not the most significant in my life. I will take you instead to 2006, as I lay laughing a small, Russian city named Veliky Novgorod.
It all started with a bout of flatulence. I sat, flanked by a dozen and half other students, on an old, concrete overpass which towered above the sidewalk- an obvious trace of communism in a city still struggling to make strides towards modernization. I was staying in Russia for several weeks as part of a high school exchange program, which my school had been running since before I was born. We Americans went to school with the Russians, ate dinner with the Russians, and did everything in between with the Russians, sharing every bit our lives with one another.
And so we sat, doing nothing in particular, dangling our feet off the ledge of the overpass, and talking about something that had happened earlier that day. It was just as the group quieted that one boy trumpeted an impressive fart, shattering the silence and reducing us all to childish fits of laugher. This isn’t a conventional milestone. To many it probably seems more like a regression than progression as far as my maturity level goes. Laughing at another student for an uncontrollable bodily function is hardly comparable to moving to a new continent, or beginning college on the other side of the country.
But this exact moment in time marks a complete shift in mentality that has guided me through the rest of my life- we are all the same. In terms of lifestyle, I couldn’t relate to many of these Russian students; my Russian host shared a bed with her mother, which they graciously gave up to me during my weeks in their home. I was raised in a house with five bedrooms and I would complain about having to share a room with my little sister. I never watched my country overhaul its government in the early ’90s, as these Russians did with the fall of the Soviet Union. I didn’t worry about finding a financially stable job straight out of college, as I knew that I had fallbacks to help me get on my feet. These Russian students did not have the same fiscal security. In just about every aspect of our lives, they were entirely dissimilar.
And yet, despite this significant differences in culture, economics, history and mentality, we, a mishmash of twenty high schoolers from different continents, could all fall backwards with laugher as a fellow student farted. It was so beautifully simple. We may lead very separate lives, and yet, aren’t all humans the same? Don’t all children say “Mama” as one for their first words? Don’t we all fall in love? Don’t we all have moments where we wished we had more, and other moments when we feel we have all that we could ever want? Russian students really weren’t so different from myself, and despite us being words apart in many respects, we could laugh and smile about all the same things. We could cast our differences aside and just enjoy the brotherhood of humanity.
Since that moment, I have never wanted to stop traveling, or meeting people from around the globe. Of course, there are times when the cross-cultural differences seem overwhelming, and I struggle to overcome anthropological and linguistic challenges in my attempts to communicate with foreigners. Yet in spite of these challenges, it’s always comforting for me to look for our similarities instead of our differences, and all the life experiences we’ve unknowingly shared.
I have done many things in my life that I’m proud of, and many milestones come to mind when I look back at years of traveling, and studying and struggling to understand the people of the world. But none of these things can compare to the epiphany I had that day in Novgorod, or how my outlook on the world has changed as a result. For me, this post is not about finding an impressive milestone to define my successes, or even about that one time a boy farted in Russia; it’s about finding unity in the human spirit.