By Lucia Jervis
Humans have single stories about the parts of the world that are alien to them. When asked about Africa, many people automatically think about drought, hunger, thirst, illness, or violence. When asked about South America, drugs and a less advanced or less educated population is what comes to some minds. When some people talk about the United States, they think of consumers, materialistic people and individuality. In contrast, when asked about Hawai’i, many think of a paradise with sandy beaches and perfect lives.
Some of these ideas cross through people’s minds as fast as the bullet train traveling from Shanghai to Beijing. They are not incorrect, but they are misinterpreted, incomplete and many times people that make these contemplations do not fully know the historical or cultural background of the places that they are labeling.
The term single story is one of the first things that I heard as soon as I boarded the MV World Odyssey, and it is one that has stuck with me until now. I think that this term will be in the back of my mind at all times and will accompany me as I grow older.
The first single thoughts that we have when we hear the name of a country or ask to describe a place are single stories.
For example, you could read thousands of American books that explain the relationship between the United States and Hawai’i, but you won’t fully comprehend the full story if you don’t also read a book from a Hawai’ian perspective.
Single stories are so powerful. They have the ability to influence people and give misconceptions about culture, humans, history, ethnicity and places around the world. It is so easy to be oblivious to the fact that your brain is always making assumptions: about people, places, spaces, paintings, buildings, classes, programs, everything. People sometimes don’t leave room for the rest of the stories than go alongside with the story that they already know or made up in their mind.
Everyone talks about first impressions and how important they are because the person that you met will already ‘know who you are’, chose if they like you or not, if you are smart or not, if you are worthy or not.
But if people have given first impressions so much power, during a first encounter you might no meet the real person that you are speaking to. For first impressions, people put themselves into a mold where everyone fits perfectly, and they do it to impress or satisfy the person they will meet.
This happens because a lot of people get labeled with a single story before they have enough time to express themselves and who they really are. They get marked with single stories, just as now Mexicans are considered illegal immigrants by some, Muslims are considered terrorists by others, third world countries are not thought to be resilient by some, and Africa is often spoken about as if it were a ‘country’ that has absolutely no resources.
Single stories can come from a place of truth, as they can also just be misconceptions, but that biggest fault of single stories is that they are incomplete.
You can complete a single story by having the initiative to learn and to go beyond the first impression. By having multiple stories, that come from different perspectives and are taught to you by distinctive people, you can add all that information together and start to better comprehend cultures, places and people. It is also important to realize than even though a single story can be replaced by multiple stories, there will always be more room to learn.
I knew that during Semester at Sea I was going to be exposed to new realities, learn new terms, and share with people from different cultures. I came prepared to be impacted by all these changes and I knew that I would let them shape me and help build the person that I already am.
I thought that I would go through this process when I visited the different countries and cities, but living on a ship and being exposed to realities such as single stories by incredible professors has already started to add to my persona and to complement the way I think.
Many have probably heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, in this case, as you live, don’t let single stories give you a perception of the world because not only does it hurt the people and places that you have single stories of, but it also hurts you. By not letting multiple stories in, you won’t give yourself the chance to grow or connect with different places or people that you have always thought to be so different than yourself.