“How do you like your mother-in-law?” Shanti, a Bangladeshi university student asked me while our train made its way across western Bangladesh. After eyeing me for some time, she'd finally worked up the courage to sit next to me when our train compartment emptied at the previous stop.
Odd question, I thought. But she was deliberate and determined in the way she asked. I figured there was something more meaningful behind it, something at the root that she wanted to share. I also noticed her apprehension; I would need to open up and share my story first to find out.
This is how two-way storytelling often begins.
What Is Two-Way Storytelling?
For many of us, listening to and sharing stories of the people we encounter is one of the greatest joys of travel. Stories connect people like no other mechanism, and storytelling helps us to communicate experience and a sense of place and culture.
But often, this is a one-directional process.
Two-way storytelling, however, goes a step further and adds a twist. In addition to listening to the stories of others, it involves telling your story as well. I’m not talking about the random share — say, how great a time you had at the bar last night or how much you loved this morning’s visit to the local museum. There’s nothing wrong with that. For this purpose, though, I’m suggesting you offer something revealing about you or your background. When invited, perhaps by a question, respond with something discontinuous that might inform or shift the way someone thinks about your culture, where you come from.
What does this kind of two-way storytelling achieve? It helps dislodge preconceptions and dispel stereotypes by breaking down barriers on both sides of the conversation, not just on the part of the traveler. It deepens the experience and the connection. And it helps to slowly dissolve fear.
5 Reasons Why Two-Way Storytelling Matters
It Exposes Value in the “Ordinary” (Republic of Georgia)
Simple questions can get the process started.
“Do you have mountains in America?” a middle-aged vegetable vendor at a fresh market in the town of Telavi, Georgia once asked me as I admired the mountains surrounding his town. At first I thought he was joking, but his expression indicated a genuine question. He didn’t really know much about the United States, including its geography. Why would he? Why should he? Similarly, what might the average American know about the Republic of Georgia?
I answered his question in my broken Russian the best I could, extolling the cultural and natural diversity of the United States while making comparisons, where appropriate, to places I had seen in Georgia. I tried to describe the vastness of the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Utah, the vineyards of Napa Valley (as we were in Georgian wine country at the time). I added, in simple terms, that the United States is huge, especially when compared to Georgia. I also noted it’s difficult to generalize the country on the whole since each region can look and feel so different.
“There are so many different people from all over the world living in the United States, so sometimes it can feel like many countries in one,” I explained, trying to shed light one of the aspects of the U.S. that makes it unique, yet doesn’t always seem widely understood. He got the connection, as eastern Georgia’s refugee and immigrant population had recently increased.
Just as others halfway around the world fascinate us with features of their lives they consider ordinary, so we have the opportunity to fascinate them with ours. This is especially true for people who may never have the option to travel to your country to see for themselves.
One-way storytelling encourages travelers to be keen observers and question assumptions. But it’s two-way storytelling that allows locals to benefit from this learning process, too.
It Breaks Stereotypes in All Directions (India)
While visiting the northern Indian city of Chandigargh, we met a couple of young women who’d recently graduated from business school. I was the first American they’d ever met. They bubbled with curiosity and excitement to know what life as an American woman was really like. Their questions for me ran immediately to dating, marriage, and love. I noticed them closely observing my behavior and dress, something I kept deliberately conservative and respectful. They attempted to square their observations with the prevailing stereotype in India of American women as being sexually available.
“Do American women date lots of different men at once? Is it really like what we see on Sex in the City?” they asked.
I was not at all offended; there was an innocence and sincere curiosity behind their questions.
“Well…not really,” I said. And then I went on to talk about my own dating experience, as well as that of my friends.
After sharing this, which perhaps disappointed them by not being more racy, I tried to turn things around: “What about Bollywood movies? Is that real life? Sexy outfits, provocative dancing, and all — is that the real India?”
“Well, we all know that’s not real life,” they said, laughing.
Then there was a pause. My point about Hollywood movies not really representing the real United States, the entire United States, finally landed.
One of them shared an experience of how she met her fiancé at graduate school. She explained how “dating” was relatively new in India, that she had challenges ahead to convince her parents to let her marry someone who was of a different, lower caste.
“But I’m confident I’ll succeed with my parents. Times are changing in India; not everyone wants an arranged marriage. They have to agree,” she concluded. (Spoiler alert: they did marry and have a couple of beautiful children.) My understanding of modern Indian relationships evolved.
We are all susceptible to prejudging, and to being prejudged. None of us is immune; stereotypes run in all directions. And two-way storytelling helps uproot all of it so we may recalibrate our thinking.
It Brings Us Closer Together (Laos)
“Can you explain something to me?” Our Hmong trekking guide asked in the hills outside of Luang Prabang, Laos. “We’ve had other trekkers on this tour who are black. Even Asian like me. Not white. But they also say they are American. How is it possible?”
He was admittedly confused. Why were the Americans he met on his tours so different than the ones he’d seen on American television shows? The show “Friends” in particular came up often in our conversation.
“You mean it’s not really like that?” He asked.
I laughed deeply inside, but focused on how to unpack a perfectly reasonable question whose answer might take the form of a book.
“Well, not really.”
I told him about the growing racial diversity in the United States, how historically it’s a country of immigrants. People moved there at first mainly from Europe, but eventually from just about everywhere on the planet. I told him that some people are rich, some are poor, and some in-between – even though our television shows may not always indicate it.
Along those dimensions, “Friends” didn’t quite represent. To the point, I mentioned that there were Hmong living in cities across the United States.
The storytelling baton then changed hands.
Our guide shed light on why this is. As he was growing up, family and friends helped him understand what happened in Laos during the Vietnam War. There were long, sustained bombing campaigns. Local Hmong were recruited by the CIA as informants and to fight against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao army. Many had to flee after the war as they faced persecution for their ties to the United States.
Although I’d heard fragments of this history before, the picture was now clearer. And, for our guide, he now understood how the whole of America didn’t match the image projected on a popular television show. That distant relatives of his who’d fled could all be “real” Americans.
It Amplifies (Iran)
“When you go home, please tell your friends the story of the real Iran, real Iranians.” If we heard this once traveling through Iran, we heard it dozens of times. We shared our experiences in conversations, on our blog, and on stages around the world. We believe that sharing these stories does make a difference.
Likewise, just as we’ve told their stories, we imagine that some of the Iranians we've met have told ours — the stories of real Americans who visited their country and answered their questions. Take, for example, a shy, high school girl at the Shiraz market who was determined to make sense of what she'd seen on local government news.
“Do you like Islam?” she asked. “Is it safe in your country for you and your family? We see on our news there are lots of guns, but I don’t know if it’s true.”
After two-way storytelling, each party to the original conversation goes home and tells her friends and family about the interaction. Then those people tell others.
Call it amplification. Reverberation. The ripple effect.
This is the ultimate power of two-way storytelling.
It Opens Up Others to Share (Back to Bangladesh)
So, what about Shanti and the train?
I responded to Shanti’s immediate question about my relationship with my mother-in-law, one that I’m happy to report is a loving, respectful one. Beyond that, I shared a bit more about myself — my background, education, and work. I told her about when I got married and how, referring to the evolving norms and family roles in American society.
In response, Shanti told me about her current university studies and her plans to marry her fiancé after graduation. But she had concerns: “My mother-in-law seems very nice, but I don’t know if she will like it if I work.”
In Bangladesh, as in many countries in South Asia, a mother-in-law can hold significant sway on a young bride’s life. As Shanti harbored dreams of applying her university education in some professional pursuit, she was clearly worried that her future mother-in-law might have other designs for her.
To Shanti, I was a woman outside her situation and from a very different background, but one she could relate to. Out of a sense of trust, she felt safe sharing her concerns and her dreams set in the form of a question — a question about my mother-in-law.
I encouraged her. They were her dreams, after all. I suggested that although she might face resistance in pursuing them, she should at least try.
We talked for another 30 minutes until the train pulled into her station. As it did, Shanti gathered her backpack and set off for another day of classes at university. She gave me a hug and thanked me. And I thanked her.
I hope she was wiser for the interaction. I know I was.