OPINION – Crowds have never been my thing, which is why paying a visit to Zion National Park on the busiest day of the busiest weekend of the year was not my idea of how to spend a Saturday. Still, I was glad we went.
Despite the endless lines of cars, the lack of parking spaces throughout most of the town of Springdale, and the prospect of riding in packed shuttles in the stifling summer heat, we had a wonderful time.
We braved the minor inconveniences for the opportunity to share one of Utah’s most scenic parks with a visiting Japanese professor who was staying with us for a few days. In addition to exploring Zion, we also spent some time this weekend showing our new friend Jiro Abe the petroglyphs and remarkable terrain of the Parowan Gap.
Abe eagerly captured dozens of photographic images and over and over expressed a sense of wonder at the sights of Southern Utah. On the one hand, we were proud to share with him the vistas that draw millions of visitors here every year. But we also found ourselves wondering why we tend to take such amazing scenery for granted when it’s such a short drive from our doorstep.
It may be that familiarity brings a sense of nonchalance, or we simply allow ourselves to become distracted by the mundane and forget to look around once in a while and truly appreciate what we have here.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play host to a number of foreign visitors over the past five years. Through the Southern Utah University homestay program, we’ve had the privilege of welcoming students from Saudi Arabia, Korea, Taiwan and Japan into our home.
Some have stayed for just a few days or weeks, others have lived with us for their entire school year. All of them have brought with them the opportunity to experience cultures, language, food, and people we otherwise would never have encountered.
Like our experience with Abe, nearly all of our guests have helped us rediscover the wonders of Southern Utah as we’ve shown them the sights. They’ve helped us to see our world through new eyes and to remember the sense of awe we felt the first time we saw red rock cliffs at sundown.
Things which seem quaint and unremarkable, like cooking tinfoil dinners over a bed of coals or roasting marshmallows with our kids, take on greater meaning when we’re introducing them to people for whom they’re brand new. They remind us to find joy in the little things that come about from time spent together.
Another even greater benefit to having these guests in our home is how it has helped inoculate our family against the agenda-driven fear that is directed against those from other cultures.
My family has had the opportunity to personally get to know individuals from a variety of different religions and political worldviews without having our understanding filtered through someone else’s lens.
As a result, we don’t quake in fear at the mention of Islam. We’ve learned about the celebration of Ramadan and the importance of daily prayers to our students. We’ve been invited to their feasts with other students and learned to enjoy their traditional dishes and hospitality.
For the record, one of the best experiences of my life was sitting around a table with a group of Muslim men who spoke only Arabic and eating from a common platter in the middle of the table with my bare hand. Reaching out to take that first handful of rice and lamb was like hitting a force field at first. I couldn’t make myself do it.
Once I overcame my mother’s years of instruction about how to eat properly, it was an amazing experience.
We don’t believe the ridiculous claims self-appointed “experts” make about how people around the world view us. We’ve had the opportunity to go to the source and ask for ourselves.
It turns out that most of the conflicts that are brewing at any moment in the world today can be traced to opportunistic political leaders who stand to gain from fomenting distrust and hatred. When the artificial rules of politics are stripped away and we’re free to become acquainted on personal terms, we find that our guests are very much like we are.
They have loving families who are concerned for their well-being and success. Thanks to the technological advantages of Skype and smart phones, we’ve met many of our guests’ families face to face over a video screen. We’ve celebrated with them as their siblings abroad were married or have had children.
Our guests have helped us see that our world is both more remarkable and more normal than we are sometimes led to believe.
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