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“The world is flat.” When I was little, I never believed this line. I would always show off in class, proudly proclaiming: “The earth is a sphere!” But now, I see the line again, on the title of a book by Thomas Friedman—and, this time, I have no easy response.
When I was thirteen, my father gave me a world atlas. Immediately attracted to the curving coastlines and the curious shapes of the many different countries, I started my “world exploration”. Impressed by my growing knowledge, my classmates would often quiz me on facts about small countries with “funny names” like Lesotho in Africa or island countries like Vanuatu in the South Pacific. But I was not satisfied with knowing only the geographical features of these countries. I wanted to know more about their people, their history, and their culture. I dreamt of wine from southern France, the tasty barbeques of Buenos Aires, traditional dances such as the Adowa (Ghana) and Joget (Malaysia), and of one day seeing the magnificent Great Pyramids of Giza and the grandiose Taj Mahal.
Miraculously, I was soon able to begin realizing my dream. Only a year after receiving the atlas, I was privileged to meet talented peers from all over the world through the Young Masters Program concerning environmental issues. As leader of my Shanghai-based group, I presented our findings on the emission reduction in a coal-fired power plant in Shanghai at the Global Environmental Youth Convention (GEYC) in Dubai. While there, I was mesmerized by the luxurious lifestyle, the opulence and beauty of the Burj Al Arab and the manmade Palm Islands. However, I could not shake the feeling that the prosperity I saw contrasted sharply with the bare existence of neighboring countries, suffering under seemingly endless waves of ethnic clashes.
Meanwhile, since GEYC is an international conference, I met many friends from all corners of the world, including Cameroon and Turkey. My knowledge of world culture made it easy for me to strike up conversation with foreign friends. They were all surprised that I knew so much about their countries and appreciated my enthusiasm and respect. However, I was surprised that many of my new friends seemed to know little about China. So I used this opportunity to tell them about Chinese culture. I demonstrated the lion dance and showed them Chinese calligraphy. When I gave my new friends gifts of traditional Chinese knots and paper cuttings, everybody else wanted one. A girl from Sweden even kissed me when I presented her a big Chinese knot.
After my GEYC experience, I was invigorated. I felt that the links made between the different countries represented a strong and viable way to conquer some of the world’s most pressing and relevant problems. I believe it is my responsibility to cultivate these connections, so this year I led another delegation of students to participate in the Caretakers of Environment International Youth Convention in Hong Kong.
Now I find there is much more to the assertion that “the world is flat.” People who have read Friedman’s book will conclude that developments in technology and microeconomics are what allow individuals and small groups to compete in the world arena, thus flattening the world. But I have learned, through my travels, through my connections with the peers all around the world, that it is our place as world citizens that makes us all equal. Equality and communication are what make the world flat.
This is not to say that the world is already completely flat. When I look back into the enormous break between Dubai and the neighboring Iraq and into the gap between my thriving hometown of Shanghai and the remote mountain areas in China, I see that the underlying tectonic plates of the world are still sharp and rugged. Moreover, only emphasizing the cultural aspect in solving world problems is oversimplifying. Cultural understanding is the foundation upon which progress is built, but we need tools to do the building. Consequently, economics and technology are still indispensable in moving us forward. I hope to flatten the world through research and careful study of what pushes governments and companies toward development and progress. To create pathways through which understanding and knowledge can flow is my personal goal. Without aspiring to a greater collaboration of all cultures, we will forever be divided by the mountains and canyons of ethnocentrism and ignorance.
Many people today are hopeful that flattening the world will lead to equality for every world citizen. We have been given the task, and the advent of modern technology and economics has given us the tools. Yet, the future remains unknown, as the will to change the present situation may be tested by the inertia of human nature. The only question that remains—and it is certainly a big question, one that I have only just begun to address—is the following: are we brave enough to take the initiative to bridge the gap?
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