I am a guava in Thailand. Foreigners, especially Americans, are referred to as "farangs", a Thai word for guava. It is said with respect. As much respect as a traveling guava might get. I am treated very well here. I have learned a lot. And have many questions. And I answered many questions from the students from the dozen or so countries that I have met.
Why doesn't America release Burma from all of the economic sanctions. The Burmese students answer the question in a way that Hillary Clinton was too politic to answer. It is because they are not free. Yet. They are optimistic that the process that has begun will be successful. In about 15 years, they say. A long process they admit, but freedom takes time. I have not met citizens of any country with more pride and hope for its future than those of Burma.
My Nigerian students ask why do the American media portray Nigeria as a country wholly consumed with civil war and the bombings that serve as evidence of such a war? Nigerian students speak with pride about their country. There are divisions and troubles and prejudice, they admit. There is also peace in much of the country, a strong culture and an articulate people.
Why does America portray Somalia as the land of pirates and starvation? The pirates and terrorists are a small percentage of the population. Somalia has a strong culture and a strong people. Simple respect would be appreciated.
My Muslim student from Thailand answers my dopey questions about her religion. I get to admit to her the very much that I don't know about her religion. She is glad to share since it is her belief that once I understand her religion that the next natural step is that I will want to join her religion. We compared and contrasted our religions, Judaism and Islam. We share much and also differ significantly. She asked why Americans think that she and all her Islamic friends are all terrorists. I truthfully tell her that not all Americans think all Muslims are alike. I tell her it is just the ignorant ones.
She says that watching American media, how could Americans come to any other conclusion except that they are all terrorists? A fair question and I have no answer.
The person from Bhutan is proud of her country that consistently rates among the ten happiest countries in the world. She is proud to share literature from her national airline. The overly complex English sentences included in the magazine tells me that her country does not look down on those that read about it. They lift them up with articulate, though overly complex sentences. It is also a country that wants tourists but will not sacrifice the safety of its treasured natural resources just to accommodate a few more tourists. Very wise people. It is a beautiful country.
My Zambian student does not talk about her country that much. I do know that she is 19 years old and has written a novel and keeps a blog with tips for young women on how to stay safe. Based on all the people I now know from Zambia, it is a remarkable place. Victoria Falls, according to those that have visited the Zambian treasure, is worth the trip all by itself.
I ask, to no one in particular, why can't all Americans learn about these and other countries? Why do American media have to define countries and religions by the acts of a few? The first answer is that I have been given the gift of meeting these people through my travels to Thailand. The second answer is also easy.