I had coffee recently with Gavin McCormick, a bright young economist who worked with me at Geekcorps some years back. He took a position with a think tank out West and was telling me that, after leaving Boston, he was thinking about going back to Namibia for a vacation, where he’d spent a difficult year as a volunteer teacher.
“I thought you’d been miserable in Namibia?”
“Well, I had trouble connecting with some people there, but I don’t always connect with people in Boston either. And I miss getting to play with the kids.”
At some point during Gavin’s time in Namibia, we traded email, and I offered my blanket prescription for making friends in other countries: Your best chances to connect with people in other cultures are around eating, drinking, playing music, dancing, playing football (soccer) and having sex. My guess is that “play with kids” belongs on this list as well.
When you’re looking for common ground for connection with people in other cultures, it often makes sense to look for least common denominators. I don’t think it’s a surprise that most Global Voices gatherings end with multinational, multilingual pub crawls. Or that many cosmopolitans I know follow football so they have something to talk
about with cabbies in Bamako.
So why go back to Namibia, Gavin? “You know, when I dance in Namibia, people laugh – I’m a source of entertainment. The white guy who dances badly. When I dance badly in Boston, I’m just a dork.”
Dhani Jones isn’t a great dancer either, despite being a professional athelete. But he’s enthusiastic and doesn’t mind being laughed at, and that’s another critical ingredient for cultural bridging. And his new TV show, Dhani Tackles the Globe, may be the best example I’ve seen of a xenophile finding common ground around the world by sweating.
In his ordinary life, Jones is a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s a talented first-string player but not a superstar – he’s played for three NFL teams, but hasn’t been voted to the pro bowl. Off the field, he’s a larger than life personality, and a good sport, which leaves him well positioned for his new job – celebrity host for the Travel Channel. His show is based around a simple premise – he travels to a country, spends a week working out with a local sports team and uses that as his path towards understanding a country and a culture.
Only three shows have aired so far, but Travel Channel is sufficiently pleased that they’ve committed to a second season. Based on the two shows I’ve seen, that’s a good call. The sportsmen Jones hangs out with are amateurs, people who’ve got a day job and compete in sports like hurling for fun. It’s fascinating to watch an extremely gifted professional athlete get his ass kicked in unfamiliar sports… and sometimes familiar ones. Who can outrun an NFL linebacker? Well, if the race is 100 meters and on sand, turns out almost any Australian lifeguard can.
The Ireland show in particular was excellent – Jones spends a week training with a hurling team for ten days and ends up playing in (and losing) a match. Teams are deeply local – the players are cheered on by their fathers and grandfathers, who played on the same team years before. Jones is respectful of these traditions, training hard with his team, meeting their families for pub lunches and visiting with hurling greats as he attempts to learn a sport that apparently involves the tricky parts of baseball, field hockey and lacrosse. At the end of a week, it’s clear that he’s not a great player of the game, but that he’s won a great deal of respect from the guys he’s playing with.
I’m excited to see how Jones deals with higher cultural barriers – the season includes trips to Cambodia and Thailand, which probably require a bit more cultural bridging than hanging out with rugby players in England. But I’m impressed, not just with Jones’s obvious love for making friends around the world, but with Travel Channel’s apparent comprehension of cultural bridging.
One of the other shows on Travel Channel I watch religiously is Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, which uses food as a jumping off point for exploring countries from Iceland to Namibia. The show Bourdain and team put together in Ghana is good enough that I keep a copy on my laptop so I can show people some of the details of why the country is so special to me. (I had a dozen or so Ghanaian friends over for dinner a few weeks back, and they demanded to watch the show three times…)
If the obvious ingredients for cultural bridging are common ground (beer, football, dancing), and a sense of humor, there’s another key ingredient in these examples: airplane tickets. It makes sense that Dhani Jones would need to go to Ireland to learn about hurling, or that Gavin would need to fly to Windhoek to embarass himself in front of a bunch of Namibians. Other globalists have taken this idea to absurd ends, like Matt Harding, who’s wandered the globe, dancing badly.
Are plane tickets the first ingredient in these equations? Do they need to be?
I live just north of Pittsfield, MA, a city of fewer than 50,000 people. For years, the city has held an annual Ethnic Fair. Old timers tell me that this used to be an excuse for people to get shockingly drunk on a summer afternoon, lurching from the kegs at the Polish tent to the German tent to the Italian tent. It’s a very different scene these days. There’s beer, and the ethnic groups that dominated the city when it was a milltown are still here, serving sausages. But there’s a Brazilian booth as well. A Colombian, an Ecuadorian and an Indian booth as well. There’s klezmer on stage before the polka band.
My guess is that there’s an opportunity for me to learn something about Brazilian culture beyond enjoying the two Brazilian restaurants that have opened in town. I suspect it involves losing fifty pounds and playing soccer in a local league. Or putting on my best clubbing clothes and hanging out at Latin Night on Saturday at the Ecuadorian restaurant and dance club. I haven’t done either, and I find myself wondering if part of the equation is that I’m more comfortable looking like a dork in Dakar than in Pittsfield.
One of the reasons I stopped working on Geekcorps is that it became clear that using air plane tickets as a tool for cultural bridging is a prohibitively expensive strategy. It seems like the internet should make it easier for us to stumble into these intercultural encounters, or to engineer them.
There’s no doubt that there are internet “spaces” where people from different countries, with different beliefs and practices, find themselves interacting. These spaces generally form around common interests. That might mean Japanese and American kids getting together to talk about Asura Cryin’… or Arabs and Israelis arguing passionately in the comments thread of a Global Voices article about Palestine. Common interests aren’t always common ground.
And even common grounds can be contested spaces. I’ve been interested in online support groups for expectant mothers, because they tend to display an interesting form of arbitrary connection: the women in the forums have a single thing in commmon – the due date for their baby – and often have lots of cultural distance (location, religion, education level, occupation). I initially saw these spaces as an exciting model for mixing around an arbitrary connection… and it’s clear that lots of people end up making important and lasting connections through these groups. But it’s also clear that it’s possible to pick fights about aspects of pregnancy and childrearing that I, as a nonparent, was completely unaware of.
So here’s my pressing question: if the internet gives us new spaces in which to find common ground with very different people, what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are? Why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, do we seem to keep sorting ourselves into familiar groups?
I’m starting to think that there’s something very special about the willingness to look like a dork. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matt Harding dances badly, but enthusiastically, and that this opens doors for him. Or that Dhani Jones finishes last in races, with a smile on his face. And I wonder whether we’d have more luck building bridges in online spaces if it were more socially acceptable to make fools of ourselves, laughing and being laughed at by our new peers.