The world looks different depending on where you look at it from.
What each of us grows up with is what we consider ‘normal.’
The two sentences sum up the main reasons this World Regional Geography course exists. If we are to understand what goes on in the world, and if we are to have any hope at all of solving vexing international problems and avoiding conflicts, we need to try as best we can to see the world as others see it. In order to do this, we need to find out as much as we can about the places others live, the cultures, economic circumstances, and physical environments that have helped shape their lives and world-views.
This idea is simple to understand, but extremely difficult to put into practice. How can we possibly know about the challenges people on the other side of the world face in their daily lives? How can we even start to figure out what parts of our ‘normal’ aren’t normal to them? The answer is simple: we can’t. But we can try.
Step One: Take a bite of the cake
A good place to start trying is to assemble in our own minds an idea of the geographic ‘layer cake‘ of the places in which the people we want to under live. For students in Geog 101, the textbook and an atlas are good places to start. By reading about some of the physical geography (climate and landforms) of the northern European lowland, for example, we can figure out that this is a place where agriculture is possible, and transportation and movement of people is relatively easy. Natural vegetation , another in conjunction with other layers of the cake, help us understand the lives of the (few) people who live in the Sahara or Amazon basin areas. The economic layer of the cake is covered in an good text’s description of Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest of the world’s regions. Religion (again, in conjunction with other layers of the cake) help us understand Saudia Arabia (as well as making sense of the recent news story about the cancellation of Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta.) The geography of political boundaries (the political geography layer,) the geography of religion, and the geography of natural resources help us make sense of the 2011 division of Sudan into two new countries, South Sudan and (Norther) Sudan (and the current violent conflict between the two.)
Step Two: Imagine
Finding out things we don’t know is easy enough in an age of Google and online libraries. But how can we possibly begin to find out about things that we don’t know we don’t know?
There are a whole lot of differences between foreign places and our own home environments that we would never even think of, but that wouldn’t rate a mention in textbooks or even travel guides. These are often related to everyday life, and range from etiquette and food to dress and transportation; these are often things we would never even think to ask about or investigate.
The best way to learn about these is to travel. I have found that when I travel to a new destination just about every waking moment is a learning experience for me. I always learn most about things I didn’t know that I didn’t know about. It had never occurred to me, for example, that people might eat scorpions (China,) tarantulas (Cambodia,) or dogs (Vietnam.) I never thought about the kind of things we do in parks, or that in other places people might use parks and public spaces very differently (see my blog post on privacy and the use of public space.)
But how do you find out about things you don’t know you don’t know if you can’t get there? One way is to look at photographs, particularly photographs of ordinary, everyday scenes from the place you want to learn about. Think carefully about what you are seeing, note anything that seems different from what you are used to, and think about what might explain it (this is the reason I use so many photographs in my classes.) Another is to ask and talk to people who live there, or who have traveled there. I try to help in this regard by bringing my own experiences, observations, and photographs to class, and writing about them on the Regional GeogBlog.
A third way to learn about other places is to think about ordinary things you do, people you interact with, and landscapes (human and physical) you encounter in your everyday life. You can learn a whole lot by thinking about what you see (and don’t see) in a supermarket, what products you see advertised on television, and how you communicate with your friends and relatives.
I found myself thinking about these issues a couple of days ago, when I logged in to my bank account. The bank’s computer was suspicious of the fact that someone was attempting to access my account, so it prompted me to answer some security questions. As I did so, it suddenly dawned on me that in Cambodia, where I am now, these questions would be nonsensical for most people, either because they would have no answer to them or because the answers would be too obvious. I found some examples on the website goodsecurityquestions.com) :
- What city were you born in?
- What is your mother’s maiden name?
- What was the make of your first car?
- What is the name of the place your wedding reception was held?
- What is your mother’s middle name?
- What year did you graduate from High School?
- What are the last 5 digits of your credit card?
Some might make sense in Cambodia, but not in China. For example:
- What is your oldest sibling’s birthday month and year?
Think about these questions. What assumptions do they make? Why might these assumptions be invalid in a place like Cambodia or Congo? What does this tell us about countries like these?
Please post your answers and thoughts below. Can you think of any other examples of ordinary aspects of our daily lives that may be very different in other places?
Update, Sunday June 10, 2012: I had a new gastronomic experience last night when I ate my first fried cricket. It was really good: crunchy on the outside (but not quite as crunchy as tarantula,) and slightly fleshy inside (not squooshy like caterpillar.) Durian for dessert; I discovered that if you eat it very cold it is delicious; at anything approaching room temperature and the stench is overpowering.