Most people are great, one on one

By Tom Putnam | Jan 23, 2011

When one travels, people met are pretty nice. This is especially true when there is no mutual threat in the encounter.

My wife and I have had the good fortune to travel in many foreign countries. Fortunately, in today’s world, most people speak English, more and more a universal language. This ability to communicate should enable the peoples of the world to come closer together.

When one visits the European Union, one rightly expects one-on-one encounters to be cordial. That is especially so when one is cordial. We all are from the western world. People, like other social animals, are naturally interested in one another. They want to know what your interests are, as do you of them, your occupation, your family, where home is. There is something exhilarating about meeting someone new for the first time, if you are open and friendly yourself. If you come upon an injured person, or become injured yourself, there is a human reaction of wanting to help and assist that person. For the most part, people are proud of their culture and country.

This is also true in other, non-Western parts of the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia. We have had the good fortune to travel several times to China, once in 1981 and then again in 1999. Our first trip was with a group of physicians from the U.S. We went to meet Chinese doctors and learn about their circumstances. For the most part, they were disgruntled. This was during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.” The educated were sent into the fields to do the work of peasants and the peasants were brought into the cities to do the work of the educated. The “barefoot doctors” were people in the country who had had some medical training and took health care to the peasants. Mao took them into the cities to fulfill the role of physicians.

The doctors we met were unhappy about how their profession had been taken over by Mao and his entourage. The doctors were friendly with us. They displayed unease when they believed they were getting onto sensitive subjects and you could see them checking around the room for unknown persons before answering some seemingly political questions.” Their medicine seemed out of date to us: intravenous fluids were administered from reusable bottles; there were two or three infant patients per crib; here were medications that reminded us of the patent medicines from the 1930’s and 1940s, for example, Carter’s Little Liver Pills. Acupuncture was frequently used.

In Beijing, men and women dressed in the Mao garb, drab colored (blue or gray) pants and high collared shirts. All looked identical. When our women walked down the street in their Western garb, Chinese women would come up and smile and stare at their clothes. If one of our women opened her purse, the Chinese women would peer into that unknown object to see what was inside. They exhibited no embarrassment at all and were friendly.

Shanghai was a little more modern. The women still wore the Mao trousers, but had blouses that appeared more Western in design and stores had the blouses exhibited in their windows. Again, people seemed eager to get to know us and smiled their welcome. One different aspect of Chinese life in the early 1980s was the lack of automobiles, other than an occasional Russian-made black sedan used by government officials. Everyone had a black bicycle and thousands of them were parked out in front of the city factories. I wondered how individuals could tell them apart. Maybe they didn’t care and just took a bike to ride home at the end of the day.

While traveling in the Lake Country west of Shanghai, we stayed in an old Russian-built hotel. I got up around 4 a.m. one morning to view an eclipse of the moon. I walked away from the hotel and wound up in the country on a footbridge crossing a stream. A Chinese man, older than me, came riding by on his bike. He stopped and, viewing my western garb, said in fine English, “You are an American, aren’t you?” I acknowledged that I was and complimented him on his English. He was a teacher on his way to the school where he taught. He said how grateful he and many of his friends were for “Col.” Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers (P40 pursuit aircraft) that helped China against the Japanese invaders during World War II.

While visiting Istanbul Turkey a few years back, Barbara and I were out on the street. A Turkish gentleman thanked us for visiting his country. He said Europeans were not tourists there that summer because they were angry over the ongoing battle between Turkey and the Kurds in the southeast part of the country. He was friendly and seemed pleased to greet us.

When in Paris, a few years ago, I went into an apothecary shop. My wife needed some Tylenol. Before traveling to France, I tried to learn French in my car while driving around. I had heard that the French tended to be somewhat distant to those who could not speak their language; but, if you tried to speak French, they were accommodating. I tried hard to ask for some Tylenol in my poor French. The clerk did not understand, knitted her eyebrows and peered intently at me. I tried again and received an even closer stare. Finally she smiled at me and in perfect American English, she asked: “Sir? What are you trying to say?" Needless to say I got my Tylenol. I shall never forget that French lady.

With one-on-one relationships being relatively congenial, why is there strife in our world? The only answer that comes to mind is that the ruling powers in each country do not truly represent their citizens. They have their own reasons for being friendly to another country or to designate others as enemies.

What are those reasons? Many have to do with human ego. A lot has to do with the “rewards and gains” of being in a position of power and authority. All one has to do is sit back and look at the gains and advantages that accrue to rulers of various countries. When these are threatened, then those that threaten become the enemy. Democracies with fair elections have the greatest opportunity to serve citizens fairly. However, even in established democracies, parties in power for extended periods of time begin to accrue benefits that rulers are reluctant to yield. It takes an educated population to make a democracy truly function well.

Cultures too play a prominent part in human relationships and cultures that have little contact with most of the world make their people more reclusive, suspicious, reserved: witness Central Asia. But the world is flattening and shrinking by virtue of human invention. Cultures will gradually blend with one another.

The ultimate responsibility for everyone on this orb is to get to know more neighbors and to make sure their political systems do not provide their current leaders with opportunities for enormous wealth and power. Yes, term limits would have enormous impact on world peace, if every country would/could adopt that practice.

But then again, we are dealing with the human ego.


Tom Putnam is a retired pediatric surgeon who lives with his wife, Barbara, in Rockland. He serves on a variety of nonprofit boards, as well as municipal committees, and is a communicant of St. Peter's Episcopal Church.

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