Thoroughly Ordinary (or Not)

Sunday, 10 November 2013 04:39

I'm sitting in a hotel in Gurgaon, India (just outside of New Delhi) as I type this blog. Although I've been to India before, this is my first visit to the northern part of the country, so yesterday I thought I'd put my one non-teaching day to good use by undertaking a day-trip down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. As expected, the Taj Mahal was even more beautiful in person than it is in photos, and I had one of those "OMG! That's the actual freakin' Taj Mahal!" moments the instant it first came into view, silhouetted by the gracefully arched doorway of the main gate.

What was most remarkable about my visit, however, wasn't the magnificent mausoleum itself, but an encounter I had just before I left. Sitting alone on a bench (or as alone as one ever can be at a monument that averages 25,000 to 30,000 visitors every day), a teenaged Indian girl in a sari came up to me and pointed to her phone and asked for a photo. I smiled and said "Of course!" – assuming that she wanted me to take a picture of her and her friends in front of the Taj Mahal. No, no she clarified. She wanted to take a picture with me. I laughed and smilingly obliged her. And then each of her friends – all 20 or so of them – also asked for a picture with me, each one laughingly calling out "Me! Me!" after the previous girl had gone, all of them vying to be the next one to take her picture with me. Somewhere along the way, I managed to snap a selfie with one of the many young ladies.

The experience was such a poignant reminder of the fact that what we consider "normal" versus what we consider "extraordinary" is relative. In so many places in the world – back home in the States, in Canada, in most of Europe, in Australia and New Zealand and even across parts of South America – I'm thoroughly unremarkable. At 5'9" I might be a little taller than average in many places, but with brown hair, green eyes and always-be-sure-to-wear-sunscreen pale skin...I'm about as normal or average or common as the next person. And yet those very same things that make me common, average or normal elsewhere are precisely the same attributes that make me extraordinary here in India – particularly for a group of young Indian girls who clearly hadn't had much previous exposure to foreign tourists yet. So extraordinary, in fact, that they all wanted a picture with this strangely tall and pale freak of nature, as if I was some sort of purple unicorn – or movie star – strolling the grounds of the Taj Mahal.

There really is nothing quite like travel to remind us that there are as many ways of seeing and experiencing the world as there are people on this planet. And the way we perceive the world is just that: a perception. It's our own version of reality – and there are different versions of reality that are no less real to other people than our own versions are to us. Accessing these different views of reality is one of the key enablers of insight in my experience, and yesterday's exchange with the charming group of Indian teenagers was a great reminder of how valuable it can be to tap into someone else's perspective. My own way of seeing myself – and seeing the world – isn't the only way, or even the "right" way. It's just my way. One way. And there are many, many other ways. And when it comes to triggering insight, those other perspectives are invaluable.
Thank you, India, for being as full of lessons as ever!

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