I can only speak to my own transformation but I think it was my three years of traveling overseas that turned me from a semi-conservative to a liberal. Prior to travel, I had no reason to pay any attention at all to anyone else’s customs, hopes and difficulties. My thinking changed by interacting with various cultures and realizing the things we had in common. The little things might differ – what we wore, our food preferences, where we worshipped – but the big things were the same. We all want happiness and a measure of success. If you look at the billions of people on the earth, I’d wager that most of them are working to survive, not working at something they love. What, then, determines what makes their lives good ones?
My thinking had progressed a little bit when I moved from small town Texas to big city Washington, D.C. and then to international Las Vegas. It was not a big city when I first got here but it had an international base in the casinos and I worked with many of them in the show I danced in for my first four years here – French, Canadian, Czech, Italian. I watched their approaches to American norms and heard stories of what it took to adapt to our ways. Although I didn’t have to accept the differences, I found myself thinking about them. What did it take to leave everything behind to come here? I wasn’t sure I would’ve had the courage to do that. And the little differences became apparent as well. Who thought fast food was awful? More important, who survived on fruits and vegetables … and preferred them? Really?
And then I got the chance to travel to South Africa for a show that was beginning rehearsals in Bophuthatswana. I had found the stories of travels from the military people I had met in Washington interesting and they had opened my mind to even more options once I drove across country to Las Vegas on my own and found that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I guess that was the beginning, because I would not have imagined such a thing in high school. In fact, I remember that my mother had once told me that although not a rich family, if I wanted to do something like go to school in Switzerland, they would find a way to get me there. I was horrified at the thought of being that far away. I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it was that I was young and had always had relatives close by that I could depend on to take care of me and although I longed for the independence that all teenagers do, I didn’t want to push it too far.
So I arrived in South Africa, where I spent ten and a half months, and loved the adventure. To this day, I have great stories to tell. But more important, I saw firsthand what apartheid was like and wondered how people could treat each other that way. I saw people who had to be taught what a knife and fork were before they could work as waiters in the resort’s restaurants. That people could be so different was eye-opening and it made me take stock of the sheltered little world I’d left. It also made me put things in a bigger perspective.
I worked in Cairo where women who wore pants of any type (that includes jeans) were suspect as being loose and ran the risk of being followed, and maybe worse, if they dared to walk alone. I had a boyfriend there and learned that, by law, women were second-class citizens. It was not appropriate for me to hug him in public. Unimaginable.
When one of the shows I worked in overseas took me to Ito, Japan, I was particularly fascinated by the plethora of “rules” the Japanese lived by. When I questioned some of them, the answers almost always came back to “tradition.” I realized that in many of the countries I visited, the people I met had no reason to question. They had grown up in one place and much like me before I left Texas, knew nothing else. To them, it was entirely normal and my views were seen as radical. I got a taste of what it’s like to be the outsider with different ways that are frowned upon.
So I came back to the States having loved my travels but sporting a liberalism about what other people could and should be allowed when they come to my country that appalled my conservative mother. Too late. I’ve discovered that once you start thinking a bit more liberally, it’s impossible to back up. And I wouldn’t want to because the most important lesson for me was that if you look at the big picture, everyone simply wants to be valued, loved and to live life to his or her fullest.