Friendship Without Borders

 

Hong Kong, January 2006

Hong Kong, January 2006

Today we spent a delightful afternoon with two friends from Spain, met over ten years ago on an academic visit to Granada. We had a long, leisurely lunch (with coffee and dessert of course), followed by a stroll along the Cuyahoga River. After a long winter in Northern Ohio, the bright sunlight and greening trees along the riverbank were a welcome sight. Also welcome was the conversation that flowed unabated and easily during our time together. It was animated and (at least we thought so!) witty.  As we said goodbye to our lunch partners at the end of the afternoon, we marveled at our circle of friends and acquaintances, gathered, like a collection of treasures, over our forty-two years of marriage.

Forty-two years ago when Greg started graduate school at Ohio State University (pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology) we joined a unique multi-national community, one that transcends national borders and cultural differences. We entered the academic life, a life that fosters the creation of intellectual and disciplinary connections—connections that for the most part ignore political boundaries and ideological differences in favor of a shared commitment to research, academic freedom, and if not the methods of science, then at least adherence to rigorous and critical thinking. But it is also a life that fosters friendship and genuine human connection.

The academic community is a global one. Nothing brought this home to us more than a trip we took to Hong Kong in 2006. Joan and I were wined, dined and entertained along with a motley group of other itinerant academics from a wide array of countries. There were, of course our gracious hosts, but also scholars from the People’s Republic, Ireland, Finland, Canada, South Africa, Great Britain, and Germany. The papers were interesting but were not what we remembered most. What we really remember is the time spent together: the one-on-one conversations over breakfast, the (perhaps a little drunken) sing-along on the tour bus, the side trip three of us took to local merchants’ bazaars to buy Dim Sum in downtown Kowloon and Hong Kong. What we have preserved from that time are treasured photographs and sharp memories of time spent together, not in conference halls, but in restaurants, and lobbies, and, yes, the backs of tour buses. The conference presentations and papers have been forgotten. The human connections we forged endure.

Almost thirty years ago Joan and Greg took part in an academic exchange to the German Democratic Republic. Greg was to teach at Karl Marx University (now the University of Leipzig). Although we will certainly post more about this experience later, what we remember most vividly about it is how we formed intense and long-lasting relationships during our year there. Several of our friendships have withstood the grueling test of time and intervening distance. Not all friendships withstand that test.

Our two countries had fragile political relations. The Communist Party and its enforcement arm, the Stasi (secret security police) were a constant presence, an outright obstacle in the way of establishing normal human relationships. It could be, quite literally, dangerous to get to know us. Yet, it seemed to stop no one from showing us graciousness, hospitality, and caring. The pretext of our visit to East Germany was academics, but something of infinitely more value was exchanged and, more importantly, preserved.

Science and the academic disciplines produce research of great value. There are practical and humanistic benefits, of course, to science and technology. Yet, perhaps the greatest benefit is this: academic endeavors provide a context for collaboration and communication that in its best incarnation strives to be free of religious, political, and nationalistic influence. Academia provides a framework, or maybe just a useful excuse, for meaningful connection at the level of ideas exchanged in reasoned discourse. Once a connection can be established, then deeper more emotional interaction can follow. Friendships form and deepen; affection and respect flower. So today, along the greening riverbank in Kent, Ohio, we rejoice in the academic life. We rejoice in the friends it has given us.

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