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viewpoint

The real story on enlightenment

| Thursday, February 6, 2014

Two summers ago, I spent two months living in an ashram just outside of Pondicherry, a city in the southern part of India. In the months leading up to the abroad experience, my excitement grew stronger and stronger. I had always been interested in India. I found the food to be delicious, I appreciated the influence of the sitar in Western music, I had enjoyed the few Bollywood movies that I had seen at that point and I found the Hindu religion to be extremely interesting. For as long as I could remember, it had been my dream to visit India, for I firmly believed that some kind of spiritual or personal enlightenment lay waiting for me in the foreign land. Now that this dream would soon come true, I could not be happier.
Little did I know that Pondicherry had a rude awakening in store for me. Unsurprisingly, India was not at all what I expected based on my extremely limited exposure. My previous experiences with Indian food, music and movies were a poor representation of the vast, rich, diverse culture found in India. This limited understanding was arguably comparable to a foreigner whose only perception of the United States was french fries and Western films, and because they enjoyed these things, believed they belonged in and could find personal enlightenment in the United States. Needless to say, I found no enlightenment in India — not because India was a terrible place at all, far from it. However, my approach to visiting Pondicherry had completely precluded any chance I had to truly appreciate what I encountered there. Going into an experience expecting some kind of supernatural revelation will inevitably lead to disappointment, and further, is a complete disrespect of the people and the culture that one intended to take advantage of for personal improvement. In fact, if Pondicherry offered me any kind of enlightenment, it was the discovery that I had approached this abroad experience with completely ill intentions.
This is not to say that traveling abroad is inherently awful. Not everyone who travels abroad expects the experience to provide them with some kind of personal growth. Rather, many people are drawn to travel because it gives them an opportunity to learn a new language, or because they believe that exposure to diversity is inherently beneficial or because traveling can reveal the falsity of some previously deep-seated assumptions about the world. More than 50 percent of the Notre Dame campus goes abroad at some point, and if one asks these students about their reasons for doing so, they will give you many other reasons beyond these.
Of course, that is not to say that I am the sole Notre Dame student that has studied abroad for the wrong reasons. I have spoken with several friends, both who have gone abroad or who have elected to stay on campus for their full junior year, who admit that their reasons for going abroad were less than benevolent and less than respectful towards other cultures. Luckily, these friends who elected to stick around realized before it was too late what I had to learn the hard way: if one does seek enlightenment, or wishes to experience a culture different from their own, one need not travel at all to find these things. We often romanticize foreign cultures at the detriment of actual people living these cultures, while simultaneously completely overlooking the fact that the American experience is incredibly diverse, and for the most part one would need to travel only half-an-hour to find a completely unfamiliar community or culture.
Whether it is a service opportunity in another country or study abroad, learn from my mistake. Do not be the jerk who presumes that they will find enlightenment simply by immersing themselves in a foreign community. Do not presume that you know all about a culture prior to actually experiencing said culture. If you do travel, keep an open mind and do not make assumptions beforehand about what the experience will mean for you, for this is the surest way to ensure that you will have a bad experience. And if you do not travel, that’s perfectly okay as well. The world is full of learning experiences, both abroad and domestic, and regardless of whether you go abroad or stay in the country, these experiences are waiting for your discovery.

Mia Lillis is a senior living in Cavanaugh Hall. She can be reached at mlillis@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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