November 4, 2009

How many cups of tea?

The one thing about my depressive and anxious moods is that I get an unbelievable muse. I don't even need Imogen Heap blaring from my laptop and a pot of coffee in my grip to let a surge of words exit gracefully onto the page.

However, today I sit happy, content, and completely desperate for an acceptable blog subject.

I've been reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. My mom wrote a Facebook status update about this book, so I figured it was worth my time. The premise of the book is admirable enough: it's the chronicle of Mortensen's trials as a hippie-climber type who, after a near-death experience climbing in the mountains of Pakistan, literally stumbles into the village that would define his life as a humanitarian.

But, for this review of sorts to be applicable for my blog, there's got to be hot beverage involved. In fact, the book's name doesn't do justice to the tea overload described in the book. In the Himalayan region, (and elsewhere) tea is a way of life. Every meal, break, and business transaction is made over tea. It's hard to believe that they consume so much tea every day. Actually, the book is named for the symbolic power of tea: for the first cup, you are a stranger; the second, you are an honored guest; and for the third, you are a member of the family.

Obviously this book appeals to my wanderlust and my caffeine-seeking tendencies, but the more important message for me is that humanitarian work is not hero work. Mortensen nearly alienates the village by pushing them too hard to finish the school before winter. His local mentor reminded him, "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time" (p.150).

I've been rolling the uneducated, but not stupid part around in my head since I read it. It's a very humbling statement for a soon-to-be-college-graduate with a growing intellectual ego and humanitarian-leaning career plan. Bulldozing cultures is not my idea of successful NGO work. I wonder about the boundaries of teaching English to Cambodians. Am I contributing to marginalizing a culture?

Having language skills will help Cambodians be more marketable for better jobs, and it will help them integrate into a globalizing world. Not that I think globalization is some godsend, but it is a fact that we have one world, and it is connecting faster than ever. Plus, learning languages is fun and always offers a new vocabulary and perspective.

How's that for rationalizing my participation in something I'm ethically unsure about?

P.S. I broke the coffee pot at the WC. Not good.