I grew up in rural Northeast America near a large lake not far from the Canadian border. The dishwasher at the nearest Mexican restaurant was white.
My town was small, along with its way of thinking. We were taught that most of the world was a dangerous hole that wasn’t to be explored. That America was number one in everything. That we had it all, and that there was no need to exercise curiosity about the remaining 95.6% of the globe’s people. We only learned about US history in my high school.
Even though the world’s people are there in quantity (especially in the cities), the country is very much isolated from the rest of the world. America influences itself with its own: pop culture, sports, music, cinema, and brands.
I was a curious child and fascinated with learning about other places, distant people, and the foreign unknown…. When my culture attempted at conditioning me to dislike the Soviet Union; I reacted by loving it. My mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I asked for a book about the USSR. I was ten years old, and had no clue what it was….
The Soviet Union was so well demonized that when I opened up the book and saw a picture of a couple getting married, I couldn’t believe it. How could such people get married? They’re only supposed to do miserable things in crumbling grey apartment blocks I thought to myself.
I moved to California in my early twenties and continued my life there…
California was a drug with its beauty and opportunity, but it was still within my comfortable borders; I knew how things operated. The world was my dream; I worked day and night to save money to manifest that dream.
When I returned after two years of circumnavigating the globe, people asked me where I liked. The words: Georgia, Serbia, Vietnam, Ukraine, Syria (before the war), Indonesia, Iran, easily fell out of my mouth with excitement. The places I had zero expectations about were the ones that impressed me the most.
I often received the question, “why would you go there?” in a negative tone with a puzzled look. I would talk about the amazing people I met, the hospitality I encountered, the lessons I learned, the beauty….
But I wasn’t effective at selling the “third world.”
America’s limited exposure to the world—coupled with the nightly news—gave us a clear narrative: unhappiness and danger. And television never made the world look good beyond countries like France, Italy, or England.
I concluded that the reactions I received from my fellow countrymen weren’t conscious; they were a continuation of the story that had been fed to us since day one. And it makes sense… why think anything good about a noun if it’s always surrounded by five negative adjectives? These narratives about the world were like lint: hardly noticeable at first—but after accumulating over time—almost impossible to get rid of.
I learned the world works much like large American cities, there are a few neighborhoods to avoid, but most of the territory is open and safe to discover.
That book my mom gave me for Christmas many years ago manifested into my reality even though the Soviet Union has expired. I live in Ukraine now. In a way, Ukraine has everything America doesn’t have, and visa versa. No place or person has it all.
Now I find purpose in showing face and humanizing countries that are negatively labeled. I wish I had this information when I was young. In the pre Internet days, it wasn’t an option. My bridge to the world was broken with uninspired teachers, sterile encyclopedias, and three channels of nightly news.
I’ve learned that people aren’t politics, but are often categorized like they are. Vast majorities of populations get manipulated by governments and get labeled with policies they have nothing to do with. Nowhere sees through this better than Iran; Iranians hate the US government, but very much love the American people; a story that doesn’t land on US soil.
I’ve realized purpose is essential for a meaningful life; there became a point where I couldn’t keep things inside myself any longer. I feel like I’ve collected enough berries in the forest for my first 40 years, now I’m passing them out.
Americans have been subconsciously conditioned to fear the world. I was manipulated by my culture that the world was one way, and I discovered a different truth. It sort of pissed me off. Now I make the content that counters the story I was told.
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