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May 02, 2019

When Reality and Perception Are Not the Same

Years ago I had the opportunity to travel to what felt like the other side of the world. The city of Dhaka in Bangladesh was a twenty-hour plane ride from the start of our journey in New York City. The trip was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. I took my son, Tyler, out of school, knowing that this was going to be an education for both of us.

I tried to imagine the world we were about to enter but it was so foreign to me that I didn’t know what to expect. When the airport lights finally appeared outside my small window, I was excited.

At almost 5 a.m. we wandered into the airport and I scanned the place in eager anticipation of what I do not know . . . but it was quiet and sleepy—too early, I presumed, for much activity. As we headed for luggage claim, my friend Kamal, who was returning home for a visit, said he was going to find his driver and we should meet him outside the exit doors.

Tyler and I walked down the hall and out the doors into total mayhem: people everywhere—hordes of people shouting and chanting, pushing and shoving. Horrified and uncertain, I could make no sense of what I was seeing or what to do. Was it a riot, a protest, or just an attempted invasion of the airport? The police struggled to hold people back but it wasn’t clear who was winning.

For a moment I felt as if we had stepped into an old movie scene, where colors disappear and suddenly you’re in a shadowy, hazy setting where lurid things are about to happen. But this was reality.

Grabbing Tyler, I pulled backwards until we were flattened against the wall. Where was Kamal? All I saw was the multitude of faces swarming toward us—I was beginning to panic.

I started to contemplate what to do and how to protect my son. Had we made a big mistake coming to Bangladesh? I was thinking I was crazy to be calculating how to catch the next flight back to JFK when I saw Kamal in front of us.

“Come on,” he said and motioned us to follow him as he turned around and moved back into the crowd. Afraid we’d be left behind, we didn’t hesitate. When we got to the car, his driver took our bags and opened the door so we could get in.

“What’s happening?” I asked. Kamal looked confused by the question so I asked again, being more specific. “What was happening, with everyone shouting and chanting? Were they protesting?”

“You mean back there at the airport?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure why he was confused but I said, “Yes!”

“Oh, that was nothing,” he replied. “Those were just people gathered to see their family members off.”

Now I was the one that didn’t understand.

Kamal explained, “When someone leaves to go abroad, either to study or work, the entire village comes to the airport to celebrate and memorialize the event. They come days ahead of the departure to sing and rejoice about the good fortune of one of their own. Tonight,” he continued, “was crowded so I’m sure there were a few different villages there.”

This made sense, but the truth of what we had witnessed was so, so different from what Tyler and I had perceived. If Kamal hadn’t explained, there was no way we would have known. What had seemed so frightening and made me want to leave was actually something wonderful.

How many times does that type of mix-up happen? It’s easy to understand when it occurs in a foreign country, but what about when we make assumptions about things that take place in settings we know and understand? It happens, so how do we know when what we are seeing is not what is actually happening?

If we don’t ask and no one tells us, we may never know—doesn’t that seem wrong?


What about you?

Have you ever made erroneous assumptions? How did you discover your mistake?
Do you have a way to prevent this from happening?

I’d love to know.


Want more:

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