It's a small world after all – Part 1

by Steve Brock on November 15, 2011

We know it's a small world (after all), but just how small?

You know you want to sing it. You’re already humming it in your head…

Anyone who’s ever been to Disneyland or dipped a toe in popular culture knows the initially-charming-yet-ultimately-irritating-but-impossible-to-forget tune from that happiest of overly-happy Disney attractions, It’s a Small World.

I loved the ride as a child. Only later did it begin to make my eye twitch. Yet now, I can approach it as a theme, one that weaves its way through many of our trips and in fact, our lives.

Let me give you an example.

While studying Mandarin Chinese in Taipei, Taiwan during the summer semester of grad school, my friend Bruce and I decided to visit central Taiwan one weekend. His teacher’s parents lived in Taizhong, the first stop on our trip, so we agreed to look them up and meet them.

We quickly found that as in many cultures, you don’t just say hi and leave.

Upon arrival at their house, the parents quickly invited us not just for dinner, but to stay the evening. The teacher’s elderly father was one of those people who display that stately kind of presence where we practically expected him to say something like, “Well my young Paduans (or Grasshoppers), sit here and I will reveal to you the wisdom of my years.”

Instead, since our conversation was all in Chinese and we had no clue as to what the word for “grasshopper” was in Chinese, much less anything from the Star Wars lexicon, we hunted for topics within our range of vocabulary.

We worked through the usual Q&A routine: How long have you been in Taiwan? How long have you been studying Chinese? My, isn’t your Chinese good (which is a polite way of saying, “We’re amazed any of you Westerners can even mumble a word or two of our civilized language”).

At some point, we broached the topic of travel. The father told us that he once visited America, way back during WWII. He went there to train as a fighter pilot against the Japanese. Then, as he explained this in Chinese, he off-handedly threw out what we thought was an English word: “Dundabud.”

“Dundabud?” we asked.

“Dundabud,” he repeated. He told us that was the name of the airbase where he trained. Out in the desert. In a state called Arizona.

“Do you mean Thunderbird?” Bruce asked, dumbfounded. “Yes. Dundabud” he responded with a look like, “I will be kind to you slow foreigners and repeat what I have already clearly told you.”

Bruce and I grinned, looked at each other, looked at the old man, looked at each other, looked back at the old man, then began pelting our new friend with more questions than he could answer.

You see, the reason for our sudden giddy enthusiasm was because that same airbase would, after WWII, become a graduate school to train recent GI’s in how to navigate the opportunities in international business that exploded after the war. That graduate school would retain the airbase’s original name, Thunderbird, and expand it to become The Thunderbird School of Global Management.

All semi-interesting points of history except for one small detail: That was our school, the place we proudly point out to this day as being the top-rated learning institution of its kind in the whole world. That’s the grad school Bruce and I were attending back home, the place from which we left to come to Taiwan and the school to which we would eventually return.

None of the scholastic value of the place mattered at that point, however. Instead, the wonder of that evening was that we had met someone who just moments before was a virtual stranger. But now, through a common point of connection, he was someone with whom we shared an unlikely bond.

It may seem like a small thing to anyone who wasn’t there. Yet those small moments are often what make travel so meaningful. They remind us in powerful, surprising ways of this hummable truth:

It is a small world, after all.

To be continued…

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