Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Missteps on the Path to Knowledge

Under the neon lights of Zanzibar, which cast their luminous glow onto Yonge street below, I am informed that I am, indeed, a racist.

I take a moment to question if the term even applies in this scenario, but the term has been cast regardless. This is an acceptable turn of events, I feel. When dealing with anyone other than yourself miscommunications, and contrasting ethics often come into play. It is for this reason that I prefer to travel alone.

If on my second day in London, I am struck with the urge to visit Piccadilly Circus to buy half priced theatre tickets, then I enjoy the freedom of being able to walk to the Underground, and be on my way. There’s a sense in a mission completed when receiving hard copied confirmation from a man who spends his day hiding in what looks like a cross between a high school portable, and a construction site outhouse. The idea of putting every single action in front of a committee, quite simply, terrifies me. Even if successful in pleading, bargaining, and debating there is still that lingering feeling of doubt. That sense of self un-satisfaction created by the knowledge that someone is less than pleased.

But that’s not the issue here. I was called a racist. How did we arrive at this point? In its simplest, it seems to have been because I asked a Chinese person what China might be like. Certainly I should have been aware that not every Chinese person would know about China. Some have never been to the mainland, some have never been outside of North America. To make such assumptions, I am informed, is strictly absurd. And were I to ask a Korean what Korea was like – well that would only further my ignorance.

I understand that while assuming every Chinese person knows Karate, especially as it is Japanese in origin, could be considered racist, asking about one’s country seems anything but off kilter.

What better way to learn about a place than by asking someone who has background there? When I wanted to know about Europe, I asked Europeans. In some cases they had never been to their country of origin, still they knew much about it. Growing up with cultural links, more often than not, creates a desire to explore personal history.

Apparently not in this case.

In truth, I believe that most Canadians know little about the Canada outside of their hometown, let alone province. Yet as a traveler, I feel it is my duty to be an ambassador wherever I go.

I understand full well that I will be questioned about the temperate rainforests in British Columbia, and the open prairies of Saskatchewan. I know that I will need to be ready to answer questions about the red sands of Prince Edward Island, while describing the otherworldly feel of Newfoundland. It is for this reason that I took it upon myself to travel from coast to coast, before I ever dared leave my national boarders.

Now, that trip may have ended up with a car stuck in a mountain, eight emergency vehicles, and many other missteps along the way: but those are stories for another time.

To ask a Chinese friend what China is like? It may be foolhardy… but racist? I think not.

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