Thursday, June 26, 2008

Internationally Speaking

Last night was Nate's last graduate school class, so I kept him company on his way there, and waited for him so we could head home together, triumphant. I had planned on reading or writing on my laptop at the nearby Starbucks while he was in class, but amazingly, I encountered two very nice students that I talked to for three hours instead.

Both men were Fullbright scholars; Felipe was from Colombia, here to study Ecology. Ahmed came from Afghanistan to study International Law. They would be starting their programs in the fall; for the summer they were in a conversational English course, to learn more about American ways of speaking. (For example, they were picking up idiomatic phrases such as "I don't buy it.") Felipe did a lot more listening than talking, I think he was less certain of his English. But I was still impressed by the range of topics he and Ahmed could talk about. We covered a lot of terrain: world demographics, geography, politics in America and abroad, technology, women's rights, the upcoming presidential elections, the war in Iraq, the military efforts in Afghanistan, cultural history, and more. In his home country, Ahmed was a defense lawyer, specializing in women's rights. He told me that I should read A Thousand Splendid Suns, because it has a lot in there about the women's situation in Afghanistan. We also talked about the rights of transgender people, and I recommended that he read Cris Beam's Transparent.

One of the images that sticks with me from the conversation is Ahmed's description of technology adoption
in Afghanistan. Six years ago, he told me, he went to Pakistan to buy a computer to work on. When it was all set up in his house, his entire family came to see this amazing computer. And now, he says, everyone has a computer or a laptop. And a cellphone. He wasn't impressed by cellphones; he felt they were too expensive and not very necessary. A cellphone call costs about 5 afs; 10 afs will buy a loaf of bread. He said he was saddened that there were some people who would pay 5 afs to call a friend outside of their home, while not far away there are people so poor that they survive by eating grass. It's a hard image to swallow. It seems like a scaled down version of the people on Beacon Hill here in Boston who live in the lap of luxury, while just across Beacon Street, homeless people bed down for the night on the Common.

I learned a lot from Filipe and Ahmed. I learned that in Colombia, according to Felipe, there are many women who dominate in the Life Sciences. I learned that in Afghanistan, when they instituted voting identification, many people asked for as many as ten ID cards, just to have the copies of their photo. I gave them my card, and I hope I will hear from them, as it was one of the best conversations that I've ever had. It's amazing what can happen when you're willing to talk with an open mind.

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