I’m deeply saddened by the horrific, senseless murder of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya this week.
The very first time I lived in Egypt over 12 years ago, I was welcomed by and stayed with a Coptic community in a small village in Upper Egypt (that’s me visiting their church above).
They’re some of the most hospitable and kind people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing and even though many of them are poor and uneducated, their faith amazes me. They’ve persevered through centuries of oppressive policies including the deliberate loss of their native language. Seeing those 21 heroes holding steadfast to their faith till the end in the face of disgusting evil was a truly inspiring and courageous thing to see.
Selfie sticks don’t beat swords.
I wasn’t born into opportunity.
I was never the lucky kid who got to go on vacation with the family to interesting and exotic places, and I certainly didn’t have the chance to experience other cultures or even cuisine growing up (apart from deep-fried dim sims at the local fish’n’chip shop).
I was the stereotypical, monolingual Aussie kid of a working class family that struggled at times to make ends meet. We resented yuppies (rich people) and I particularly disliked kids who spent their school holidays in places like Singapore, Japan and France on family holidays.
For me right up to my teens, traveling to the Gold Coast (less than an hour drive from Brisbane) was an adventure and the ultimate extent of my travel experience.
It was all I knew growing up.
A very ‘franc’ Couchsurfer
I hosted my first Couchsurfer years ago from France and acted as her tour guide while she was here (taking every opportunity to practice my French at the time). I couldn’t wait to take her for a drive up to the Gold Coast Hinterland which in my opinion was the most beautiful place in the world (despite not having been anywhere else to compare it to).
I remember how upset and offended I was one day when we were driving through the bush and, after having said to her “Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?”, she responded “No. You haven’t been anywhere else so how could you know?”
She didn’t mean any harm by it but it was a profound criticism that pierced my heart.
It hurt because it felt like an assault on my home and an accusation of ignorance on my part, but she was absolutely right.
I knew nothing about the outside world – not because I chose to be ignorant but because fate determined that I should be born into a family more concerned with putting food on the table and paying overdue rent than our next holiday destination.
My life-changing first stay in Egypt
I went on my first ever overseas trip to Egypt just after I finished high school.
For a guy in his late teens with my kind of background you can probably imagine how intense my culture shock experience was.
Besides all of the vastly different cultural differences, the sounds, smells and new sights, it was the exposure to another level of poverty that hit me the most.
I thought I was poor and unfortunate.
One of the most life-changing foreign language encounters I’ve ever had happened in a village in Upper Egypt.
I lived in this small village that had muddy streets, dilapidated buildings and not a single English speaker anywhere in its vicinity.
Invitation brought me here – friends of a friend. I didn’t really know anybody and I can’t even begin to describe how intimidating it was for an Aussie teenager who had only just started Arabic living in a place where every single villager comes out to see you day and night and the only way to get some privacy is to go to the bathroom.
One day I was invited to the home of a newly-made friend to meet his family, the first of many such invitations but by far the most memorable.
It was memorable because I wasn’t greeted with the usual, “Ahlan, ahlan!” with food being shoved down me and a barrage of questions about where I’m from and how much I like Egypt.
This family was quiet and completely unexcited.
The youngest son lay in a small bed beside the kitchen table and his mother made some tea. All the father asked me, without even greeting me, was how much money I had. At first I thought he was being rude and invasive but it quickly occurred to me that this family had a reason to be unhappy.
My new friend used a basic level of Arabic to explain to me that the boy in the bed beside the kitchen table had “a sick heart and will die soon”. He was about 10 years old.
I later discovered through someone else that this boy could have been helped with proper medical care but it was beyond this family’s financial capacity to pay for it.
Looking back in retrospect, the t-shirt that I was wearing that day when I visited their home cost me the equivalent of at least a month’s rent to that family.
Despite my “poverty” in Australia, I probably could have saved or at least helped that kid’s chance of survival with the little I did have.
I learned a powerful lesson that day and was seriously humbled.
Why languages matter to me
This has been in many ways the driving force behind my desire to learn languages over the last decade.
Until you can truly connect with people from another culture, which involves knowing or partly knowing their language, you’ll never fully grasp the struggles that people all over the world go through.
The best tourist attraction for me is engagement and a relationship with a local person, conversing with them and learning more about their story.
In Nice, France it was the taxi driver having a whinge about Algerians in his city.
In Aswan, Egypt it was the Nubian man complaining about his disrespectful nephew.
In Witternberg, Germany it was the girl on the train telling me about her up-coming exams.
In Chiavenna, Italy it was an Italian couple talking about renovating their holiday house in the alps.
In Rustavi, Georgia it was the Ukrainian hairdresser telling me about her dead-beat, Russian ex-husband.
In Kazan, Russia it was the Russian maid working like a slave for a billionaire family and the one thing keeping her spirits up – looking forward to seeing her grand daughter.
In Gumi, Korea it was the ajumma who ran the local bulgogi shop who told me about her favorite soapies.
This is why I love languages and why I’ve devoted the rest of my life to learning how to communicate with people from all over the world.
Learning languages just for the sake of convenient travel or to produce yet another ‘watch me speaking!’ video for YouTube gets old really quickly (believe me!) but connecting with and learning about people is something that’s always exciting and purposeful.