Squatting, traveling and experiencing expat communities has shown Kevin the importance of acceptance and trust
“We must view others – and particularly strangers or ‘outsiders’ – not as dangerous potential enemies, but as trusted friends…”
Having been encouraged to bash out one of these ‘My Community’ beasties by our illustrious editor-in-chief, David Schofield, I must admit I was rather unsure where to begin. This assignment posed something of a challenge for me, as – like many people today, I suppose – I don’t feel I really have one. I have a ragtag rabble of friends and cohorts, of course – and we certainly encourage, support, educate, and entertain (sometimes unintentionally!) one another – as all communities do; but we are a rather fractured lot – scattered far and wide across the globe.
I guess that doesn’t really make us any less of a community – but nonetheless it doesn’t quite correlate with the image of one that I have in my head. When I think community, I think close-knit, I think day-to-day, I think multi-generational. I think of cellular folks uniting to form a single, geographically specific organism. That I don’t feel I’ve ever had – at least not a stable, long-standing one.
This is in part due to my own decisions, and in part, I feel, a natural biproduct of the increasingly diffuse and transient world in which we live. It has also proven to be something of a vicious circle – that sort of cooperative, localised support structure was something I avidly craved, and so I saught it far and wide; precisely because I’d lacked the stabilising influence of such a supportive network growing up, however, I never felt able to settle anywhere long enough to become a part of one.
This wasn’t all bad though, and now that I’m wearing a few extra wrinkles and my heart is feeling more inclined to bed down and commit to a postcode, I actually think it has imparted me with some highly advantageous intel. I’ve witnessed first-hand how lots of different groups interact and function (or disfunction, in some cases ;)). I’ve experienced the trials, triumphs, quirks and quandries of a pretty wide spectrum of social dynamics – and this has made a difference to the way that I percieve communities and the sort of body I wish to be a part of.
So, in short, I figured I would summarise just a few of these community experiments for your consideration – make of them what you will!
Deeply disenchanted with the status quo and in the midst of something of a political and philosophical awakening, I quit my deadend barjob, threw a rucksack on my back and – accompanied by fellow TC contributor Deborah Allmont – hit the road. We hitched down to lands end and then spent a month walking and camping along the north coast of Cornwall, before elbowing our way into the squatting scene in delightfully eclectic Bristol. Brimming with anarchist angst and determined to set the world to rights, we rocked up ready to set the activist world alight…though the reality would prove to be somewhat different.
There were some wonderfully colourful characters, good hearts and innovative minds among the motley crew we found there, but nonetheless, we couldn’t help but feel there was something missing. We were very green and naive entering that scene, and though we realised that there would inevitably be people there with issues stemming from the social exclusion and hardship they’d experienced, we nonetheless had visions of joining a vibrant community defined by solidarity and compassion. And in some respects, we did – people certainly took us under their wing, into their homes and gave us considerable assistance – the thing that we both felt was largely absent, however, was simple – love.
There was a lot of talk about it – the notions of universal acceptance, embracing those different from ourselves, creating a new, more just, empathetic world – we just rarely felt any of it in people’s interactions. We had been very lucky to discover a friendship group previously that truly did embody those values – free from any political doctrine or ideological framework, and as stimulating as the theoretical discussions and community actions taking place there were – that open, free, truly warm spirit simply seemed absent from this collective.
I’m sure other people have had different experiences, so please don’t take this as a carte blanche endictment of the squatting movement – a movement that I still steadfastly support – but sadly, for all of the interesting things we experienced there, we largely felt emotionally detatched from people and weighed down by much of the anger that permeated the scene whilst we were there – forcing us to move on to pastures new. It taught us a very important lesson, however – and one that has stuck with us – the many ‘revolutions’ that we must initiate in order to improve life on this humble little rock of ours cannot survive on ideology, organisation or passion alone – they require a spirit of unconditional love shared amongst friends and strangers alike in order to take root and thrive.
Another of my lifestyle experiments involved a relocation to South Korea to teach English for a year. Needless to say, living amongst a population defined by a very different culture to your own can be both a rewarding and a disorientating experience – but it’s the effect that this alien environment has on its immigrant population that I’d like to focus on here.
I acquired my teaching job through a recruiter representing the EPIK scheme – which places English teachers from native speaking English countries into Korean public schools; and the program was fairly structured – everything from our accomodation to our training was provided for us and we were ‘processed’ in batches, much like students at university. As such me and a host of my fellow intake were met at the airport and shipped to a hotel for a couple of nights, to be transported onto our teacher training facility afterwards.
It was at the hotel that I began to think I’d made a mistake. I’m a pretty accepting and light-hearted individual (hopefully you can tell ;)) and generally I find it fairly easy to make connections with people. In this instance, however, I found it really bloody hard. I was jammed into a dorm in a foreign land packed to the rafters with a bunch of folks that I just didn’t feel I’d ever be able to get close to. Thankfully though, sometimes life surprises you.
In the end, once I got to my teacher training ‘compound’ (that’s what it was – it was like a gulag) I bonded with some lovely types who were more my cup of tea; but one of the developments I remember most fondly from that time is the unlikely friendships that formed under those circumstances. I ended up teaching in a fairly out-of-the-way rural backwater – with only 20-30 English teachers (the only non-koreans within easy travelling distance) in the vicinity. As a result, almost all of these folks would hang out together – despite the fact that we were VERY different.
We had people of every age, ethnicity and religious background within our midst. Die hard atheists and fundamentalist christians, partyheads and teetotallers, socialist loud-mouths and capitalist sell-outs (!); and some of them I couldn’t staaaand at first – but we learned to get along and respect each other – because we had to. We formed ourselves a tight-knit community – not based upon mutual interests or similar backgrounds; but as a result of shared experiences and a collective need to support one another. And by the end of that year, I realised that many of those people – people I’d argued with, disagreed with – and at times just found plain irritating – had become friends in spite of it all. I discovered that in spite of our differences – or perhaps because of our ability to overcome them – I was going to be truly sad to leave them behind.
Right, I’ll keep this one pretty short and sweet, as this lot probably don’t need much explaining (the buggers get everywhere ;)). Suffice it to say though, I’ve done a reasonable amount of backpacking – throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand – and met a lot of people doing the rucksack shuffle. Before I did, however, I was truly socially inept. I couldn’t just strike up a conversation with someone I didn’t know – how the hell do you go about doing something like that?? It was being forced out of my comfort zone – and into the bosom of an extended community of folks who always seemed delighted to make my acquaintance that changed all that.
In provincial centres back home, it often felt like people were suspicious of anyone who arbitrarily attempted to engage them in conversation, or would otherwise politely observe the social niceties associated with such interactions whilst seeking a window to retreat back into their private world. But it’s amazing how people’s interactions change when it’s assumed that everyone around you is away from home and actively seeking company and new experiences. Backpackers have no more reason to trust people in this scenario than they might on their home turf – in fact, being far from their creature comforts and the security that a familiar environment provides, they are substantially more vulnerable.
However, perhaps because they are more vulnerable, they band together – they identify themselves as part of an extended tribe of likes. They support each other, they look out for one another, they share information and resources freely – and as a result everything becomes easier – especially forming strong, uplifting personal ties.
There are other groups, social experiments and dynamics that I could mine for titbits, but I think that’s probably enough for one sitting. So, I’ll just wrap up this little account by polishing up the few pearls of wisdom I feel I procured as a result of these experiences.
Communities – what makes them special, what makes them work, and how do we strengthen, nourish and proliferate them? Well, firstly we must come to accept difference – and accept that it is a good thing. Having people with conflicting ideas, perspectives and backgrounds within your tribe is a strength, not a weakness. It keeps your communitarians questioning, thinking – it keeps them fresh. Even more importantly, if we can keep a clear head, and not allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by those differences, we will see that it affords us a tremendous opportunity by allowing us to actively practice empathy for others – and that makes us strong as a unit.
We must view others – and particularly strangers or ‘outsiders’ – not as dangerous potential enemies, but as trusted friends. If we learn to assume the best of people, we will be far more likely to draw it out of them. Most importantly, however, we must strive to embody love in everything we do – because it’s always this love that holds a community together – that binds it, fuels it and inspires it to become greater than the sum of its parts…and our societies require that more than ever, to overcome the tremendous challenges we face in the future.
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