I came to China as a kind of unilateral exchange student, and have eagerly studied the traditional culture and benefited from it. I am more tolerant of others, curious and even more willing to learn than before. With this in mind, I ask how can we bring our two Americas together? One possibility is an exchange student program – within the country. For example, a rural family in Alaska is offered a monthly stipend by the US government to host a kid from an inner-city Chicago neighborhood (also financially supported) to live with them for 3 weeks or longer. Vice versa, volunteers from rural (red) areas can be invited to live with a family in a (blue) city or suburb. Families would be vetted by a reputable organization and there may be target quotas for each congressional district – no mandates. The chances are that if such a program is implemented (it could begin with a pilot), the benefits would accrue. Exchange students would return to their neighborhoods with insights that could help resolve future political issues. Activism would be tempered by a rich experience of both Americas. Younger people would be willing to volunteer and learn about others. Older participants could well form the greatest of change-makers.
Even before I arrived in China, 20 years ago, I had heard of the Cultural Revolution. While living and working in Shenzhen, I gave a little girl some English lessons. One day, her grandfather told me of a seminal moment in his youth: his participation in the Up To The Mountains Down To The Cities program. In 1968, Chairman Mao declared: It is necessary for educated young people to go to the countryside to be reeducated by the poor and lower middle class peasants. Cadres and other city people should be persuaded to send their sons and daughters who have finished junior or senior high school, college, or university to the countryside. Ultimately, 16 million students (ages 16-19) were persuaded (my euphemism) to live and work with peasants in poverty and under harsh conditions. When I worked in telco back in the US, we had moccasin days, where workers were encouraged to play the role of another employee for a day or so. I do not remember much about that (forgettable) experience. In the US, addressing racism with busing and forced integration had mixed results. In the case of China, many were devastated at the family separations, or embittered. It could have been the little girl’s grandfather who said to me: I wasted so many years of my life. We find that, around the world, bringing cultures together, which is part of the medicine of healing societies, is far from easy. Cultural assimilation is a fast spreading tree whose variegated leaves fall over the place. Sometimes they form beautiful gardens, or end up in the mud, shrivel and die.
A few years ago my foundation started a pen-pal program to link disadvantaged kids with their more fortunate counterparts in developed countries. For example, kids in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, and Salzburg, Austria, write letters (not emails) to each other. Orphanages in Shenzhen, where I have volunteered and been warmly welcomed, have participated in the program, as well as a school in Gabon. The communication between these kids is very moving, and offers a window into human commonalities. Here, we have an example of finding ways to bring cultures together in a fun way, with creativity, structure and patience.
As I reflect on such programs, I wonder if there is a place for something with good intentions, and managed well, to succeed in our divided United States of America. For each of us, a hard look in the mirror of the other America is the first step towards self-government, civic responsibility and decency. During the Tang Dynasty, disruptive force was often met, and balanced, with old fashioned principles. The Tang poet Li Shangyin once wrote: The lessons of the past are as clear today as frost and dew.
If such domestic exchange programs are developed on a national scale, this could be a great way to start helping each of us understand not only why we are so different, but how to reconcile and, at long last, come together as a country. We would have not just blue and red leaves, but purple and pink. Perhaps because such a simple idea is, indeed, simple, I would expect furious opposition from cynics, as well as strategists in political parties who are vested in the divisions of America – but that is not a reason not to try. We are at an inflection point in history, a rare moment which calls for unity in America. This point in time will be inevitably followed by a hardening of attitudes. Is it not time for a rethink, a reevaluation of our volunteer values?
One of my pen pal kids in Kibera, Sarah, 13, wrote to her new friend in Salzburg (with beautiful sketches of animals): “I love computers. I hope one day you can come and we see each other face to face, to like pets, like dogs, donkey, cow, hen and goat.”
These are lives not wasted, but enriched.