Alden Jones, author of The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, comments on honesty in encounters with other cultures and viewpoints. The recipient of multiple honors for travel writing, essays, and memoir, her book is new in paperback and published today.
One of the central questions of my memoir is whether it is possible to divorce ourselves from our own cultural norms when we encounter something shocking, exotic, or simply foreign. Recently, a professor of French history approached me with concerns that his university students were resistant to, almost angry about, the idea of Muslim women wearing hijab. A strong feminist sentiment among his students rejected the head scarf as a symbol of misogyny; my professor friend was concerned that this led to feelings of hostility about Islam. How, he wondered, could he get non-Muslim young men and women in New England to consider the hijab from the point of view of the person wearing it—to put aside the cultural norms they take for granted?
It seems easy now, as a seasoned teacher, to turn to theory and philosophy to combat this kind of resistance among young people, or any people. But the truth is, we human beings react to difference, and we react to the foreign, because of the visceral feelings they inspire. We have good feelings about those ideas that make us feel powerful or validated. We reject those symbols that make us feel threatened. This is the human condition. We are a fragile, emotional species.
When I first started writing The Blind Masseuse, I wanted to believe that I had it all figured out, that I was a humanist, a “traveler,” rather than an ethnocentric tourist. But writing this book taught me that if I were being honest, the opposite was often true: I had a lot left to learn when it came to how to cross cultures the “right” way, and sometimes it was impossible to avoid assuming the role of the tourist. It didn’t take long to realize that if I wanted to write a book that encouraged a humanistic approach to travel, I would have to be honest about my own struggles when confronted with difference. I wrote The Blind Masseuse to explore my own gut reactions over the years—and to see how experience, reason, intellect, and even humor might combat those gut reactions. If we are not honest about our emotional truths as individuals, we will never eradicate xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and nationalism.
In our suddenly ultra-hostile political environment, and a U.S. government that through policy has embraced an “Us vs. Them” dynamic, seeing the world through the humanist perspective is more important than ever. In the end, my professor friend’s students may reject the idea of the head scarf as anti-feminist. First, they need to provide some rational basis upon which to land at this conclusion. Beyond the scarf is an intricate set of social and religious rules that require thought and context. The important thing is that they have considered—truly imagined themselves on—the other side of the scarf.
has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries, including as a WorldTeach volunteer in Costa Rica, a program director in Cuba, and a professor on Semester at Sea. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Time Out New York, Post Road, The Barcelona Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, and The Best American Travel Writing. She teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston.