For much of my life, I’ve called myself a global citizen. Until recently, though, I had no idea how naïve saying this actually was.
A global citizen is someone who identifies him- or herself as part of an emerging world community, and who is committed to building this community’s values and practices.
My parents were Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) service workers in Moscow when I was a child, during the tumultuous period following the crumbling of the former Soviet Union. Our heat would sometimes not work for days, so we would have to sleep in our winter coats and pants. Occasionally, we heard bombings in the distance. Xenophobia and racism were common, and our friends of colour faced violence on a regular basis. This experience shaped my understanding of the world. It contributed to my desire to work internationally and to write about global peace and justice issues.
Still, for a long time I lived my life in relative naïveté about much of the world and my place in it.
In July, I returned from a year living and serving in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, through MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. I worked as a writer and editor for the Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), an international peace and justice organization that equips young people from different faiths to be agents of change in their communities.
I realize now that it’s easy to call myself a global citizen and call on others to do so, but much more difficult to actually be one. The experiences I had during my SALT term contributed to my understanding of what it means to claim this identity in the world and global church, plus all the responsibilities that go along with those community roles.
One of the biggest parts of my learning experience was also the most routine: living with the Ke family for 10 months. Nearly every SALT participant lives with a host family in order to become better immersed in the culture in which they are serving. Although it wasn’t always easy living with a Cambodian family, I picked up the Khmer language more quickly, and understood more about everyday cultural exchanges and family values because of this experience.
My desire to fit in with my family and carve out a role for myself motivated me to be more engaged in the local church and culture, to learn more about the history of the country, and to attend additional language classes so I could better communicate.
The commitment to learning more about one’s host country and the surrounding region is something I think is an important part of being a global citizen.
In my work with ICF, I was given the task of interviewing people from all over Asia, many of whom were from conflict-prone areas, and writing their stories for the organization’s website. When I accepted the position, I thought it would be simple work that would come easily to me. I’ve worked as a journalist for more than five years and have interviewed many people in that time.
One thing I didn’t count on was my ignorance about conflict-prone areas in Asia. I didn’t realize how much history and context I’d have to learn in order to understand where these people came from, and how to communicate these contexts to people who aren’t aware of these situations.
In one year I had to learn about Cambodia; Papua and West Java, Indonesia; Mindanao, Philippines; China; Burma; and Thailand’s Deep South. Each of these areas is profoundly different, and these projects were deeply challenging.
Even now that I’ve returned home, I believe I owe it to the people in my circles who supported my SALT term to share what I’ve learned about Cambodia and the region. Part of my responsibility is telling my own story of what I’ve learned about myself and the Cambodian culture, but also sharing about the people I’ve met along the way in my SALT work assignment.
I believe I can continue the ongoing process of being a global citizen by staying in touch with the friends I met during SALT and my host family. I can also learn from the people around me in my home community in Canada.
You don’t have to live abroad to be a global citizen. Ultimately, it’s about committing oneself to ongoing learning and humbling oneself to listen more than one speaks.
I’m consistently disappointing myself by not living up to my role as much as I would like to, but my SALT experience has helped me to set a higher standard for myself. And I plan to keep progressing.
Rachel Bergen, 28, holds a master of journalism degree from the University of British Columbia and is the former co-editor of the Young Voices section of Canadian Mennonite. She lives in Winnipeg.
See what Rachel said before her SALT assignment: “Goodbye, Young Voices.”