Making Room for the World

First of all, a huge thank you to the lovely writers at Black Ink, White Paper for inviting me on board to be their newest blogger. It’s lovely to be here in such wonderful company.

Second, a brief introduction. My name is Lisa Janice Cohen, but I go by “LJ” for the most part, since the year I was born, “Lisa” was the most common girl’s name. I’ve never been in a group of people that didn’t have at least one Lisa. (Waves to Lisa Didio!) I live just outside of Boston, MA with my family–hubby and 2 teen boys, 2 dogs, and an international student from Beijing, China.

And that is a good segue into what I want to talk about in my first official post here. The ability to expand beyond your boundaries is a crucial skill for any artist. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of tunnel vision in extrapolating only from what you know. Reading and
research helps, but there is no substitute for experiencing life outside of your comfort zone.

I live in a fairly mono-cultural upper middle class to wealthy suburb of Boston. There are more people in my town unenrolled in any political party (what people think of as ‘Independents’) than there are Republicans. The vast majority of people here are liberal Democrats, highly educated, with professional jobs. There is little cultural or ethnic diversity, nor is there much diversity in thinking. While that can make for a tightly knit community, it can also lead to intolerance and a sense of self-righteousness, even narrow-mindedness.

I write speculative fiction–a mix of fantasy, science fiction, and YA work. I create worlds and people them with individuals out of my imagination. If all I am exposed to is my narrow view of the world, then what I create will be narrow as well. So aside from reading as much within and outside of my genre as I can, what else can I do to expand my world view?

I can travel and I can bring the greater world to me.

Our family has done both. When my boys were old enough to appreciate and engage with people from other countries, we began to invite international students to stay in our home. Our first student was a young lady from Kyrgyzstan.

I had to admit, to my extreme geographic shame, that I had no idea where Kyrgyzstan was before Nurjan came to live with us. (It’s a small country in Central Asia, bordered to the north by Kazakhstan and to the east by China.) Through Nurjan, we were introduced to a rich nomadic culture, to new food, new ideas, new understanding. She shook us out of our preconceived notions of life in what we always referred to in our ignorance, as the ‘third world.’

We learned about the traditions of an oral storytelling culture that revered horses and hospitality. We learned about the great conflict between traditional Kyrgyz culture and the Russian lifestyle that was layered over it during Russia’s long rule through the time of the USSR. We learned about the custom of bride kidnapping–a custom that still exists today and devastates the lives of young women and their families.

We even learned to cook Nurjan’s favorite foods, though I could never master the pulled noodles of Laghman.

In the nearly two years she lived with us, our sense of the world became larger, more inclusive, richer. And when we traveled with her and her husband to Kyrgyzstan two summers ago to attend her Kyrgyz wedding, our viewpoints became expanded even more fully. It truly was the trip of a lifetime, not just for the writer in me, but for all of us. I daresay, our children will never see their lives in quite the same way again.

Since that experience, we have opened our home to several other students, one an elementary teacher from Harbin, China, and the other, a high school senior, from Beijing.

I may still live in my small, limited corner of the universe, but my dreams and my imagination travel to a much larger place, indeed.



11 responses to “Making Room for the World

  1. I love exchange students! That was one of my fondest memories growing up is when we had folks from other places in our house. Fascinating (a little intimidating), and exciting all at once.

  2. I don’t think I’d be half the person I’ve become had I not traveled as extensively as I did.

  3. Nice to have you here, LJ. Agree with Ray, travel should be a compulsory part of higher education. You learn more about people and yourself from it than sitting in any classroom.


  4. Great story and a fabulous picture! What an adventure that must have been. I haven’t traveled nearly as much as I’d like to (not even close!) but that’s going to change soon.

    Welcome aboard!!

  5. Thanks, guys! So nice to be in such wonderful company. πŸ™‚

  6. I’m always jealous of people who were able to travel when they were growing up. We were too poor and there were too many of us for vacations to go anywhere further than a (short) car trip away.

    • My father repaired washing machines and my mother was the school secretary. Family travel consisted of piling into the car and heading down Route 66. I began seeing the world in my mid-twenties. Bought a round trip ticket good for a year (for $350 from PanAm), stuffed $700 into my jeans and headed off. Between working and starving, I managed to last two weeks shy of that year. Could have lasted longer, but with no way back. πŸ™‚ The next trip, I wasn’t much richer, but brought along my girlfriend on a trip lasting 16 weeks. If you don’t mind youth hostels or sleeping on the ground, it doesn’t take all that much.

  7. Oh, wow, Raymond. You must have amazing stories to tell from those trips!

  8. LJ, it’s great to have you with us.

    I, like Ana, grew up dirt poor, but as soon as I got a job – I was 16 – I started traveling, first through Canada and the western United States, then all over. My fondest travel memory to date is of the six months I spent in Europe – it was fabulous. I still have a whole lot of places on my to-do list although I have to admit that Kyrgyzstan hasn’t been one of them, at least until now πŸ™‚


  9. I love traveling to new places and meeting new people. I have been lucky enough to travel the US of A and parts of Canada with my folks and childhood friends, but haven’t seen it all yet. I also was lucky enough to spend major time in Mexico, Central and South America as well as Indo China in my years as a business development consultant. And now my dream is visiting Europe, especially the British Isles — Australia and New Zealand are also on my list. I love meeting the people, hearing their stories–it’s like finding precious stones to a writer.

    Great article, glad to have you on board.
    Sorry to be so late in the day reading your “first-official-post” πŸ˜‰

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