On June 24th I returned to American after 7 weeks in rural India. Returning had an odd sensation. My first thought when I left Hopkins Airport was that America was more quiet than I remembered, my second was that you can tell that America is a relatively young country, my third was that America is not well developed (but these things are all relative). On the way home from the airport my brother and father stopped at Chipotle. I don’t know why, but I will never forget that. Partly because I had not slept for more than spurts of 10-20 minutes for more than 30 hours, partly because I did not anticipate culture shock on the way home, and partly because it seemed odd to eat meat so nonchalantly. I felt I was moving slowly, even though I had not travelled over 60km/hr in an automobile in nearly 2 months.
Now that I am writing from my “new” dorm room, about 60 feet from my “old” dorm room, where I applied for this fellowship only 7 months ago, I feel compelled to ask “What has changed?” and “What was the impact?” of this experience. Since the four walls appear the same, what is different inside?
When I applied for this fellowship, I talked about conventions. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and imagine how differently any given society could be organized. Not necessarily because I am dissatisfied with the current organization, but so that I could conceive of something better when the time came. So that I do not judge people, my future patients, my friends, on arbitrary distinctions and rules that are no more than an artifact of history, which itself could have gone differently. What this means, I think, is a more complex a topic than I would ever be able to explain, but I feel that impact. As a RA this year, I have already felt it interacting with my residents – I don’t feel required to interact or implicitly evaluate them based on the standards of my culture and upbringing, but on how they wish to be viewed. I can only hope that this forges ties between us, as people, uninterrupted by our own expectations of others.
The following Monday I started a Physics class at Cleveland State with a Swedish professor I have known for a while now. When I sat across from him, with pages of old loose-leaf physics textbooks littering the ground, he asked about my time in India. I thought he wanted to know about the differences, so I talked about the food, the bathrooms, the languages, the work week, etc. I think, naturally, that is something people are interested, how are they are different from us. But after I spoke, he looked dissatisfied, so I thought I would tell him the truth, “Honestly, we are far more similar than we are different.” He looked at me again more enthusiastically.
For all the infinite ways life can be organized, we, as people, resemble each other much more than we are different. While not everyone in India might use utensils, they do have a common place for eating. While their toilets may be different, many have toilets. We have families. We have friends. We have hospitals. We eat at similar times. We have work weeks and weekends. We have roads. We have similar values on success and tolerance. And to me, that is amazing. I assure you it does not need to be like this. Other forms of life do not have friends or toilets, eat three times a day, have/live with families, or defined weekdays and weekends. With the ideas of multiverse becoming more accepted, it becomes even more probable that our organization is just one type of an infinite number, and to me, it is a miracle just how similar we are.