WORLD PEACE, ONE FRIENDSHIP AT A TIME
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I read that John A. Wallace died last Friday at the age of 88, it brought back many memories. Not of him, but of the institution he founded which changed my life, the School for International Training, a part of World Learning, Inc. in Brattleboro, Vt.
When I got there in 1987 as a student in the Program for International Management (PIM 40), World Learning was called The Experiment in International Living. It was founded by Donald Watt in 1932 to provide young, upper-middle class WASPs with the experience of living for a few months with a family in another country, learning their language and culture, and hopefully making a few lifelong friends. I don't know if Watt created the homestay, but he certainly was a pioneer in the movement.
His great idea was that world peace might come more quickly if we all recognize that the brotherhood of man is really a brotherhood, or a sisterhood, or a peoplehood - politically correct language sometimes gets in the way - but in any case, a family. World peace, one friendship at a time. It's a comforting if unrealistic idea, because war often manifests itself first in families and friends - look at Bosnia and Rwanda.
Watt's idea had its first tragic encounter with reality in 1939, when a group of Experimenters had to be evacuated from Europe just before Hitler declared war. But it sprung up again after the war, when "Never again" was a phrase on the lips of more than just the world's remaining Jews.
According to Wallace's obituary, in World War II he'd been one of the first soldiers entering the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen. "What he saw there convinced him to do whatever he could to make sure nothing like that would ever happen again," the obit said. He and Watt were kindred souls.
People in my class came from all over the world: the U.S., of course, and Finland, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Tanzania, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Italy, and Togo. We spoke French, Finnish, Swedish, Spanish, Chinese, German, Portuguese, Cebuano Surigaonon, Japanese, Bengali, Hindi, Kiswahili, Malay, Urdu, Arabic, Tagalog, Bicol, Setswana, Punjabi, Thai, Sierra Leone Creole, Pulaar, Greek, Italian and English. All the Americans had considerable overseas experience, either as Peace Corps vets or in jobs with international nonprofit organizations or as hard-bitten travelers looking for a soft landing.
Today, I'm told, PIM courses are rigorous and the students are hard-working and serious. When I was there, the courses were less than challenging. Watt called his autobiography "Intelligence is Not Enough," and we muttered that a little intelligence might help.
SIT is "experiential," in that it tries to give students the emotional experiences they need for cross-cultural learning. But most of us had spent years living with poor people in underdeveloped countries and we were way ahead of our teachers.
Irreverent, arrogant and rowdy, we specialized in having a good time. One of the first things we did was build a floating raft on Upton Pond. We created a new culture based on Rhinegold beer. The wife of one classmate was Polynesian and taught us how to weave grass skirts from the rushes by the pond. In the yearbook, there's a picture of me dancing the hula in mine.
My roommate, Andrea, was often our cruise director. She gave one of her best parities after she decided that Hussein, a dignified Pakistani bureaucrat, needed to hang out more. We broke into his room - about 30 of us, with a great amount of beer, and Andrea wearing a rhinestone tiara for the occasion - and shouted "Surprise!" when he came in. Although the party started as a joke, he was so deeply touched that we - who moved so easily in foreign cultures - learned an important lesson about how difficult it might be to fit into our own culture. In that case, the experiential method worked.
I came to look at SIT as a railroad roundhouse. We were all trains; we came in on one little track, got turned around a bit, and left on another track to save the world or, at the very least, ourselves.
I'm still in touch with many of my classmates. Anjali went on to create a non-profit in India to nurse the victims of AIDS. Andrea has raised millions of dollars to help disadvantaged American girls. Vilawan is a Buddhist monk. Yixun is a Shanghai entrepreneur.
While many SIT students go off to make the world a better place, some of us are still living and working in Windham Country. SIT and World Learning are responsible for the depth and richness of international understanding that you find here. Our children spend time living and traveling in other cultures. We support many international cuisines. We speak many languages and know many cultures and understand the dangers of demonizing entire populations for the sake of empire.
Because Americans are blessed with an enormous and bountiful country that extends from sea to shining sea, we frequently don't travel far. We are cross-culturally deaf, dumb and blind. We are oblivious to the enormous diversity of colors and cultures and countries that share the planet with us. Most of our schoolchildren cannot find Panama on a map, and for some strange reason, people are proud of it.
I've read somewhere that until he became president, George W. Bush never traveled overseas. And when former president Ronald Reagan came back from a trip to South America, he famously said, "Well, I learned a lot. . . . You'd be surprised. They're all individual countries."
It's easy to support right wing death squads in South America when you aren't sure where those countries are. It's easy to sell arms to Iran and biological weapons to Saddam Hussein, or to invade Panama, or to invade Iraq on a whim to depose Saddam, when you can't imagine that the people who live there are real people. Ever wonder why the American press doesn't tell us how many Panamanians, Afghans, or Iraqis have died in our tragically silly impulse wars, or why the torture at Abu Ghriab happened so easily? To most Americans, people from other countries aren't real.
But it's hard to think of a person as a "gook" when you hang out with Yixun, or when Vilawan cooks you a special Thai dinner. You can't call a person a "wetback" when you know Gisella, or a "towelhead" when you know people as different as Hussain, Anjali, Mansur and Tridib. You can't call a person a "wop" when you've watched the ebullient Antonio struggling with his English, or a "fag" after George has flamed his way into your heart. Hopefully, you can't call a person a "kike" when you know me.
If Reagan and the Bushes had been given homestays when they were young, or at the very least some cross-cultural sensitivity training, we might not be in this mess today. World Learning and SIT are remarkable achievements, and Jack Wallace and Donald Watt were remarkable men.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Dummerston and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.