Seeking a Bigger Story

Between my first and second year of university I signed up for a service-learning program with my university to go to Indonesia for four weeks. On our way there my group stopped in Singapore and then ferried into Batam, Indonesia. I recall one of my teammates asking the older taxi driver who took us to the ferry terminal whether he had ever visited the U.S. The man simply answered, “Why would I visit America? Singapore is the greatest country in the world.” At that point in my life I had never heard anyone say anything contradictory to the idea that the United States is the best nation in the world. This was my first step into unraveling the patriotic story of American exceptionalism.

When I got back from the trip to Indonesia I was like most college kids who go on summer mission trips—jaded and enlightened about the capitalistic patriarchal system of America and set apart by my noble determination to overturn the whole damn thing. Fast forward over the following five years containing a lot of hubris, one or two youthful existential crises, and a couple embarrassing lessons about the scope of my ignorance, and we arrive at today. I likely still have a mouth bigger than my brain when it comes to talking about the stuff going on in the news or the latest geopolitical wikipedia article I read, but my ego is soothed by the fact that I feel as though I now have many more questions than answers compared to that day I landed back home from Indonesia. Now I don’t only question American patriotism as a mask for international bullying, but I question whether national identity in general—be it American, Korean, or Brazilian—is nuanced and flexible enough to so powerfully define the world we live in?

Watching parts of the Mark Zuckerberg Senate trial gave me the impression that Facebook with its 2 billion Facebook users (larger than any country on earth) is a good example of a space where the story of independent nations starts to operate a little less smoothly. Which country’s laws ought to govern the way Facebook is used and how it can operate? Does Facebook have to depend on national governments to punish Facebook users who break Facebook’s community guidelines, or should Facebook have some right to penalize violations of its standards? If that is the case, should users all over the world get to vote on these community guidelines? Or, let’s look at the new Spielberg movie Ready Player One that recently came out as a more intense example. In the year 2045 most people in the world play a virtual reality video game called The OASIS. The OASIS is a virtual meeting place that has culture, economies, and communities. Besides eating and bathroom breaks people can—and sometimes do—spend all their time in it. Like Facebook, the OASIS is a place not entirely inside any country’s borders. How do we organize and design ambiguous spaces like this? And who is the “we” that gets to do so?

Another, more personal, example of a space I feel doesn’t fit entirely into any nationalistic story is the annual summer training put together by the NGO I currently work. For the past seven years groups of about 50 people from South Korea, China, Mongolia, Japan, Taiwan, and several other regions have gathered together to discuss and learn about the historical, territorial, military and nuclear tensions of northeast Asia. It has been interesting and at times challenging to see how different national stories clash when introduced to each other. It has also been funny and hard to see how the ways I’ve learned to categorize people repeatedly fails. Dual Indian and US passports? Korean passport, raised in Kenya, and schooled in the States and Singapore? Canadian passport but fluent in Korean language and culture? It sounds obvious that every person has a unique individual story, but when we continue to see the world through small stories we continue to have small imaginations that cannot adequately encompass the lives of the individuals we meet. The hope of this annual training is to inspire the fundamental paradigm shift needed to create a bigger story. To me, NARPI, like Facebook and the OASIS, is a space that is too big to fit inside any country.

Within my national identity, what right do I have to question the situation of conscientious objectors in South Korea? Limited to nationalism, what obligation do I have to care for the devastation war is having upon civilians in Syria? I feel that we need a story bigger than the one given to us by our countries in order to organize our world in a way that works for the majority of us. I’m just not sure exactly what that story is yet.