Liberal arts, romanticism and Che Guevara

The Motorcycle Diaries remains my all time favorite movie. I first saw it with my really good friend from Ecuador during my freshman year at college. Fascinated by cinematography, I also found the film easy to personally relate to.

~ How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew? How can a civilization that built this be destroyed to build this?~ said Che when visited Machu Picchu and compared it to modern Peru in 1952.

He commented that Incans knew astronomy, brain surgery and mathematics but Spanish had gun powder. “A revolution without guns? It would never work.” It is one decision, one moment that distinguished Che from Gandhi. Thank goodness for our Buddhist traditions. Che, Guzman, Gandhi … they all feel the same to me, they all want social justice and equality, except that they chose to carry out their missions differently. If I hadn’t been influenced earlier by non-violence leaders, I could be radically rooting for an armed struggle by now because of you, Che. If I had been born in an Andean village, I could easily have been persuaded by promised land of social equality under Gonzalo Thought.

In any case, I saw the movie again twice in Peru, two years later. The film is largely responsible for my presence here. And I am not the only one. Some of the students in my program had the same experience with the film. In fact, Prof. Orin Starn from Duke University also wrote about his first introduction to South America though a film called Bye Bye Brazil. He also writes, upon reflection, of a youthful romanticism as he left home.

“As it happened, far from being solitary adventurers, we were following the well-trodden “gringo trail” of greasy young backpackers from the United States and Europe. We thrived on the all-night bus trips, fleabag hotels and sour-smelling cantinas en route to Machu Picchu, Iguacu Falls and the Amazon jungle, and on contact with the peoples and cultures of a world less familar and, so we supposed, more alive than our own middle-class neighborhoods in the north. It has now been almost tweny years since that first trip. While puff harder now up mountain trails and lurch to the ball with less agility in village soccer games, I am also aware that my attraction as a twenty-year-old was sparked by travel brochure stereotypes about the mystery and exoticism of South America and by the privileges of race, class, and nationality that enabled us to travel in the first place.

Yes, I am in your place, Prof. Starn. A twenty-year-old kid from some liberal arts school. The only difference is I am not even a gringa, I do not even have privileges of race, class or nationality. My home country is worse off than Peru. And here I am, living the life of a gringa and enjoying all the privileges my parents have earned me. A friend of mine forwarded me this link as a joke.

This study abroad experience has been pleasant and I have nothing to complain. It’s too perfect that I am feeling guilty. Liberal arts education in general strikes me as delusional. I see excited Burmese students like the young Orin Starn. I read their romanticized blogs with my arrogant cynicism. About their empty writings on Plato, Socrates, and their romanticism. Maybe we are being too selfish. Maybe it is not for us, third world kids. This is what my American peers do and the difference is in their society, USD 20,000 per year is considered “low income.” Liberal arts education is supposed to teach me critical thinking but what is more advantageous for Myanmar? More thoughtfulness or technical, vocational skills? At the same time, I am questioning myself if I would be able to meet expectations, especially from people that have invested in me. An american who is currently in Yangon and who I have never even met outside told me, “you know, people here think very highly of you.” I feel obliged to live up to their standards and I really hope I’d be able to with my degree in a humble major.

Talk about learning, let me conclude with one of my favorite quotes.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain – John Adams

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