A face-to-face conversation, half a world apart

A few weeks ago, I stepped into a large gold-colored box stationed on Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington, DC, and came face-to-face with a young man from Afghanistan. We stood about the same height, about ten feet from one another, yet we couldn’t shake hands – because the man was actually standing in Herat, Afghanistan, in a similar box in a similar public square. We were two participants in Amar Bakshi’s art installation of “Portals” that connect people around the globe for short conversations.

For better for for worse, I happened to sign up for a portal time slot when PBS was doing interviews. I agreed to let them film my conversation and ask me a few questions afterwards. Because I knew any portion of my conversation might wind up on TV, I had a hard time relaxing and felt somewhat hindered in the topics I could broach. But I still enjoyed meeting my Afghan counterpart, who was interested in becoming a doctor. We talked about med school, public health, food, and sports.

Interested in the short PBS News Hour piece on the project? Watch the video below. My entry begins at 2:20. It’s always a weird feeling to watch myself on camera!

 

Here’s a transcript of my portion of the video. I am “WOMAN”:

WOMAN (ME): Yes, what do you eat typically?

MAN: Red meat, chicken or something like that.

AMAR BAKSHI: And that, I think, is powerful in itself for people.

WOMAN (ME): I had actually planned to maybe talk about some maybe more in- depth, tough questions.

MAN: Do you live in Washington, D.C.?

WOMAN (ME): But when you’re kind of faced in just that short moment of someone you haven’t met, it’s difficult to dive right into the meaty, kind of controversial, tough questions.

AMAR BAKSHI: People can go in there and chitchat about the weather. And often they do, because it’s hot here and there.

PREETI PARULEKAR: OK. There we go.

(LAUGHTER)

AMAR BAKSHI: But they can also go in and talk about — and they do — marriage, online dating, you know, freedoms, war, loss.

KHALED SALAR: Life has really changed in Afghanistan, and everything has had a really big impact on our lives. Learning about a country or a culture through TV or media is really hard, but getting to know people and getting to talk to them in person is — it’s much more effective.

PREETI PARULEKAR: For a lot of people here, sometimes, you can feel very conflicted about to what extent did we play a role in causing that?

It was a really good experience. It was really interesting to hear kind of about his life and his perceptions of the U.S. and kind of to get a feel for a real person living in Afghanistan.

MAN: And what is your favorite sport?

WOMAN (ME): I wasn’t disappointed that we talked about some of the lighter stuff, because a lot of times that’s what you actually talk to people about in daily life. I think the value in this experience is just having that moment with someone partway across the world that you absolutely wouldn’t meet otherwise.

And I think it tells you that every human on the planet has something to connect around. And so it was a pleasure to get to talk to someone that I otherwise wouldn’t meet and make that small connection, even just for a moment, to start off my day.

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