Thursday, October 9, 2008

We all Smile in the Same Language

Several years ago, my then two or three year old daughter picked up a bright yellow smiley face sticker at the doctor’s office. As she debated where to stick it, I stood mesmerized by its message - “We all smile in the same language.” Yes, I thought – we all smile, cry, love and nurture, suffer sickness, pain, sadness and loss, all in the same language.

Day in and day out, in different parts of the world, we are mostly engaged in the same endeavors - trying to take care of ourselves, our families and our loved ones. Our lives differ in the details of how we go about these things, based on our economic, political, and other realities of our individual circumstances.

For most of us, the day begins with the rising of the sun – followed by a million individual routines – hitting the snooze button, milking the cow, searching for glasses, picking up the delivered milk, answering the call to prayer, praying and so many variations of the same. Some of us wake up in happiness, others in fear, some in pain, and others with a spring in their step.

We have so much in common, yet as President Clinton once said on Meet the Press, to interviewer Tim Russert, “the biggest problem confronting the world today is the illusion that our differences matter more than our common humanity." This illusion puts up many walls between us, and is limiting the ways in which we could interact with each other.

As we go about our daily lives, we are also more connected than in previous generations. Television, the internet, and the mass global exchange of goods has replaced the geographical isolation of people on our different land masses.

Over the last several months, my family and I have been keeping track of where all the things we bought were made. We discovered that most of the food we ate, except some fruits, was from the USA, but the rest was mostly made elsewhere.
We greeted our rare encounters with the made in USA sign with excitement.

Most of our clothing had been made in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Phillipines, or India.

Our Ziplock bags were made either in Brazil, Canada or USA; toothpaste and moisturizer in Canada, Bandaids in Brazil and shaving cream in the USA.
Our toys including Tennis Rackets, Matchbox bulldozers, puzzles, and American Girl Dolls, the straws we use for drinking, and some kitchen gadgets were all made in China.

Somewhere, during this process, a magical thing happened - our family replaced the thought “Made in Country X,” with “Someone in Country X made this.”

This change in semantics led us to visualize all the people involved in the process, manufacturers and consumers. This forced us to acknowledge their present economic and political realities, aspirations and common humanity.

We began to wonder about their daily realities - did they get rest breaks, do the factories have hazardous material regulations, and so on and so forth. This happened alongside our “why is so little of what we buy made in the USA” discussion.

This change in paradigm of visualizing the worker, albeit from another country, in the act of creating the product we are about to buy, took us closer to making conscious choices regarding what we were buying.

It made us look beyond the “good deal.” It led us to wonder whether we should recycle our electronics and print cartridges – to ponder what happens to them after we drop them off, and to get interested in the newspaper article that says they are shipped to countries where workers who work on them are exposed to hazardous materials.

Apart from this indirect connection to people through the goods we consume, we are also directly interacting with people from other cultures on an unprecedented scale. As my family wakes up in Pennsylvania, some others stay awake, possibly in India, well past midnight into the early hours of the morning. They work at the 24 hour call center and take our customer care calls to our DSL, cell phone and credit card companies; some even stay up and tutor our kids.

These new interactions have been thrust on us, by models used by large corporations, whose bottom line is to save money. The current financial crisis is a man made one, as are the interactions we have due to wars and terrorism. Add to these our shared interests of sharing the world’s resources, addressing global warming, and fighting illnesses.

We are connected, inextricably.

And while I personally prefer that any community or individual be locally self sufficient, I realize that this is not the model the world is operating on today.
Or perhaps it never did. Sarve Jana Sukino Bhavantu, or wishing all people well, is an old Hindu prayer, which realized long ago that our prosperity and well being is inextricably connected to that of our neighbor’s.

The flat world today fosters a new opportunity to celebrate the common links between all people, and to work towards our mutual well being.

But the hardest part of our journey towards this celebration of our common humanity, is to let go of the preconceived notions we have of each other. For although we all smile in the same language, we all stereotype in the same way too - arbitrarily forming opinions about entire groups, without realizing that they too are just like us, nothing more and nothing less than another collection of individuals.