Practicing Presence

On multiple occasions in South East Asia, I could see a glint of curious playfulness in a child’s eye. It took me several weeks to move beyond my (Western) acculturated limits of restrained interaction with strangers- especially children. Once, I was standing outside a temple market, minding my own business, when I felt a pounding on my legs. Dear God, I’m being attacked! I looked down to see two siblings giggling and beating away on my legs as if to knock down this silly-looking, fluorescently-white giant who had been spotted and suspected as someone fun to play with. I immediately let out a roar and threatened to tickle them which led to eruptive squeals of joy and a great flailing diaspora of the children. A chase ensued. I tracked one down and snatched her, twirling her high in the air and motioning to throw her into the water. I looked over at the little brother who had escaped my faux-wrath, noticing he had sought asylum and solace with his family. They were all laughing and smiling boisterously. Since I was with a group of friends and didn’t care to purchase anything at the market I simply played with the small girl until everybody else was ready to leave.

In the United States, it is hardly appropriate to jump into such playfulness with strangers/children (I won’t go into the effects of overly-saturated media leading to paranoia) but I found that most parents were highly appreciative of me lovingly playing with their kids. I remember a few other occasions when Jody broke out his tea set to snap a few photos and enjoy some tea in a unique location only to accidentally steal the attention of roaming children who slowly made their inquisitive way over. Jody was always quick to invite them to sit down and have some tea with him. (In the photo above, Jody is having tea with a young girl named Pupu we met in Bagan, Myanmar.)

Here is the small girl I was playing with at the temple market.

This past year I realized that my favorite part of traveling was getting out of currents. These currents are the routes between heavily touristed areas where modern, western accommodations exist in sufficiency in order to serve amenities, comforts and familiarities to tourists. Many tourists flow between these places and, eventually, a tourist-friendly economy and culture replaces the traditional culture and economy: globalization eroding diversity. In many ways, the currents are getting stronger. I was often sucked in and I can’t claim to have strayed too far from these currents but the times I did, I found myself in strange and intriguing situations with unique opportunities to interact with local people.

I was also able to join in the local culture and engage the youth who were spending their free time similarly to how I had spent mine: playing soccer. Fortunately, soccer is (nearly) a universal language and it is surprisingly disarming to join in the common cause of kicking a ball around together for enjoyment and camaraderie.

Sometimes my camera gave me a chance to approach groups and individuals with the understanding that I was curious about them and their life and cared enough to be with them. If I took their portrait it was always with their consent- albeit sometimes given in shyness and other times in eager self-promotion. Showing people their own beauty with portraits of themselves often made them beam with joy as, in their hearts, they felt privileged and worthy.

I’ve made it a regular practice to help farmers when I come across them- setting my camera down and picking up a shovel or an axe. Primarily, the intent is to spend time with people; practicing presence. Almost every single time I did this I was able to forge bonds with people despite having zero verbal communication. Sometimes presence is all it takes. The thought of a stranger with a different skin color from a different continent walking up to an unassuming group of farmers and motioning to help was always slightly suspicious but ultimately, always something that brought gleaming smiles of deep joy (not to mention many jokes about my naïveté and incompetence at doing their jobs).

Helping farmers till the rice paddies in Northern Vietnam.

In being present, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps these instances have helped show that not all tourists are solely interested in seeing specific sights and consuming specifically marketed experiences. Perhaps they can find a glimmer of hope in the fact that some people deliberately leave the tourism-currents to get to know ordinary people amid their everyday lives. I can’t help but hope that perhaps we all have more in common than we imagined; that perhaps the kingdom does transcend and is breaking through with moments of shared presence.

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