On the road, one of the most common questions the traveler is asked is “Where are you from?” It is a fair question, but if you hear it daily for months in a row you may begin to wonder what it really means, just as you wonder what it really means when you answer “the United States.”
Your reply helps someone place you on a map, but it tells them nothing about what you believe, what you’d die for, why you’re at this very moment sitting at a table or bus so far from your answer. It simply tells them what culture you’re most familiar with, which usually is also the place where your parents brought you into the world and raised you (something in which you exercised no choice). That is, though your reply locates you in the world, it says nothing about what you are choosing to do in the world, and why.
Encounters that don’t progress beyond this question are transitory and quickly forgotten. Ones that probe deeper — asking not just where fate delivered you onto the map but what you are trying to do there — are the ones you most remember. These encounters are part of what make a mountainside in Vietnam, an old city wall in Colombia, or a living room in Palestine a kind of “holy ground,” for here encounters happened that affirmed, challenged, or strengthened you. Here encounters transcended the map, and issues of nationality were absolutely peripheral.
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and writer who enjoyed getting to know people such as the Dalai Lama and Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh, met an untimely death in a Bangkok bathroom in 1968. While he didn’t have the chance to flesh out his Asia travel experiences in a book, we do learn through his journal, published in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, how enriching were his encounters with the men and women he met. The accounts are sometimes captivating. And, I suppose, they’re not all that surprising, given that Merton once wrote the following:
If you want to identify me, ask not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I’m living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.