“This place made from our love for that emptiness.” -Rumi
A traveler and a tourist engage in a new environment in distinctly different ways. A tourist, “a person who is visiting a place for pleasure,” separates him or herself from the local people and experiences a new place through his or her usual lens. In contrast, a traveler discards that lens and immerses with the goal of understanding the local people and their beliefs from their lens. The tourist is focused on the self, and the traveler on others. The tourist strives toward pleasure, and the traveler toward discovery.
You as a global health student are not only a traveler, but a traveler with a specific purpose. A traveler through the terrain of another medical system. Think of the medical system as a country, and your motion through it as one from hospital to hospital, patient to patient, family to family, with the goal of understanding the roots of inequality, and the challenges of medical education and healthcare delivery within that terrain. While global health requires immersion to understand the depth of these challenges, such understanding is only the first step in a lifetime of striving toward rectifying these challenges, devising innovative solutions, and identifying which lessons learned from other health systems are transplantable into ours.
If global health is “public health for the entire world” then it means the absence of poverty and inequality on the surface of the earth. It means access to clean water, education, and healthcare for everyone, everywhere. While simple in its definition, its realization is undoubedtly a severe task. It requires complete dissolution in the clinical environment, in patients’ homes, and in informative literature. All other activities take time and energy away from the main goal of the global health elective. There is no time for pleasure in the tourist’s sense. Your pleasure must come from learning the challenges that need to be understood in order to find solutions.
Of course, these greater-picture challenges are atop the more immediate ones like being in a new environment as a noticeable foreigner. The task of immersion can be particularly daunting in light of the fact that you will always be a foreigner regardless of the kindness of locals or your genuine attempts to integrate. Your culture, lifestyle, and belief systems will always, in one way or another, be different. You will always be conspicuous in a landscape far from the one with which you are familiar. There will always be some things that you will not fully understand or comprehend. There are undoubtedly times when you want to be invisible, to observe everything without you yourself being observed.
This isolation may compel you to take solace in the company of those from your own background and in the activities that are familiar to you. While it is important to form camaraderie with your peers through your experiences, indulging too heavily in that compulsion greatly stunts what could become immense growth. Living in another country while maintaining the lifestyle you have in the United States, and engaging mostly with other Americans and expatriates, will neither help you learn about the lives of locals nor encourage you to leave your comfort zone. Engaging in tourist activities only furthers the divide, as most locals cannot afford such luxuries. Instead of perpetuating the gaps of separation, work towards traversing them.
The only way to understand the perspective of locals is to live as they do. While the discomfort is inevitable, your reaction to it as a retreat into your comfort zone, or a direct confrontation, is under your control. Medicine at its pinnacle embodies empathy for humankind and the fundamental attributes that connect us, rather than those that divide us.
A learning opportunity as transformative as this one may not come again for some time. When you return home, you can indulge in everything you have been missing–friends, films, beaches, spas, comfort foods, and the luxury of being in a world that is familiar to you. You will have plenty of time to indulge in your comfort zone- although you may, after some time, start to feel somehow stifled by it. But until then, embrace your discomfort. It will only help you grow. See what your roots absorb when replanted in new soil.