“As we grow in awareness of one another – whether two people beginning a romance or two disparate and far-removed strangers taking an interest in the other’s culture – a wonderful thing begins to happen: we begin to care for the other as if the other is part of us. This is the magic of life that our ancient teachers have bid us to see; the invisible filaments of interconnectedness that bind us together in love and appreciation.”
— Scott A. Hunt
Embracing different. It’s a phrase my wife and I have said pretty regularly to each other this past year.
As expats living in Egypt in order for us to enjoy our time here embracing differences is essential. As you might imagine there’s been a lot of things we’ve needed to get used to. It’s not only the obvious things either, like the culture, weather or religious practices. It’s the little things too. In Egypt you need to make sure you always have cash on hand for when the guy comes to your apartment to collect your monthly electricity payments. Here the supermarkets often don’t have the items you purchased last week in stock anymore. Here you should always try to have small bills when you go into a store because many vendors don’t carry a lot of change. So many things are different than what we’re used to in Canada.
And never was “different” highlighted more so than our our recent trip to India. Coming from North America there’s not much that can prepare you for how different it is just to walk down a street on the subcontinent. The honking horns. The cows walking amongst the cars, bicycles and rickshaws. The unfamiliar smells, both pleasant and otherwise. And always having to fend off touts or haggle for the best price for something.
There are times when all this “different” can wear you down. It’s so much easier when you know what to expect when you enter a situation – especially situations that at least on the surface feel familiar. For example, it’s nice to know that when I order pizza in a restaurant, it tastes like I expect it too. Heck, there’s a reason a restaurant like McDonalds has been so successful over the years. You can walk into a McDonalds anywhere in the world and order a hamburger and it will always taste exactly the same (well, except for maybe India, where they don’t have beef on the menu!).
But here’s the thing that I think so many people fail to recognize. Different does not inherently mean wrong or bad. It simply means different. The way of doing something that you’re used to is not automatically better by default. There’s more than one way to skin a cat so to speak. And there’s lot’s of ways to get from point A to point B.
I’m not sure I’ll ever forget an event from a few year’s back when we were travelling in Scotland. Being the Harry Potter fans that we are, my wife and I decided to ride the Jacobite train (aka the “Hogwart’s Express”) from Fort William to the village of Mallaig and back. The train had an unusual method for numbering their seats where the seat numbers changed depending if you were on the outbound or return ride. While this numbering system caused us some initial confusion, once we figured it out we were fine. Unfortunately for the American family sitting in the berth next to us, it wasn’t that simple. Upon arrival they seemed to have a tough time figuring out their seats even after we tried our best to explain things to them. They ended up sitting in the wrong seats and were asked to move when the owners of the seats eventually arrived. Mom wasn’t happy and let Dad know about it. She couldn’t understand why it had to be so “complicated”. I remember feeling sorry for the guy as he was obviously the one who booked the tickets. Anyways, on the return trip essentially the same thing happened and the mom lost it. She tore a strip off her husband again and let the poor train attendant have it too. As all this was happening, I remember thinking to myself – “We’re in Scotland. It’s not the same as the US. Just roll with it”. She wasn’t able to do that and it essentially ruined what would otherwise have been an amazing time for that family. I often think about that incident whenever I feel myself getting frustrated in a situation that isn’t playing out the way I’d expected it to.
So what are the advantages of embracing different, aside from just saving yourself the odd frustrating situation?
Embracing differences allows us to look at things from a new perspective. It can challenge our preconceived notions and help us to have empathy for others. It can also open up a whole new world to us that would be otherwise undiscovered.
If we only ever do what is comfortable or familiar, how do we ever learn? When we decided to move to Egypt, it wasn’t just about being able to see the Pyramids. It was also about being able to learn about a new culture that was quite different than ours. I wanted to better understand things like why they Egyptian people forced a revolution 3 years ago. Or the role that religion plays in their daily lives. Or the local cuisine. The list really goes on and on….
If you’re not willing to embrace something different, it’s a little like putting your head in the sand to the world around you. It leads to close-mindedness and intolerance. Not exactly qualities anyone should be aspiring to.
I’ll readily admit that embracing differences can be a challenge at times. Humans are creatures of habit. Familiar is comfortable. But this shouldn’t hold you back from embracing the differences when you encounter them.
It doesn’t mean you need to travel the world to experience differences as me and my wife have chosen to do (although I’d highly recommend it!). It’s more than possible to embrace differences that you have in your regular daily lives. Because really, what’s the downside? At worst, maybe you realize that something is not for you. But at best you end up with a completely rewarding experience that makes your life fuller for having done so.