I've spent months as a child of medical volunteers in Ethiopia and Haiti and wanted to give other geeks a little insight into what it's like to be in these kinds of places. Geeks might feel especially anxious about a massive change of scenery. I want to argue that in some ways, geeks are the best cultural ambassadors we have and have a great deal to gain from trying. Read on.
I consider myself a pretty typical geek: studious my whole life, had few friends, greatly appreciate my alone time when I can get it, lack of social sophistication, lack of desire to become socially sophisticated.
I was 18 in my last trip to Haiti, so you might keep in mind that my sense of self was still quite green. At first, there was a sense of complete shock at how different people's lives are from those I knew growing up in the U.S. It was like going to another planet. This was both exciting and overwhelming for the first few days. As a geek, I think I was less prepared than others for the powerful effect another cultural mindset can have. My shields were not at 100%, let's say.
As an example, at first it was very hard for me to be the target of panhandling from children: children without shoes asking you for your shoes, your watch, your shirt, any change you can spare. I came to eventually see myself as an actor acting out the part of an elite individual saying "no" to almost all of them, but it took a while to overcome the resentment I felt for being put into this position whether I liked it or not. I eventually learned to make it a kind of game where I would try to divert the flow of events by making them laugh at something unexpected I did, or I would ask them if I could join in on their soccer game with a tennis ball, and then it would turn into great fun. I could go on about how incredibly good-natured some of these super-skinny kids with ragged clothes were. The ones who couldn't be bothered to talk about something besides handouts were likely to leave after a few minutes of my attempts at diversion. Those that stuck around were more likely to follow me back to the house where we were staying to get some small food item or toy. Even simple things like yarn were considered very cool at times.
There was a two week period where I felt a sense of depression because it seemed completely arbitrary that I got to sit in an air-conditioned room in a house, eating and drinking good food whenever I wanted, while countless numbers of people just as deserving as me were going hungry and yet somehow managed to get up every and make the best of it. It probably didn't help that we were there to help at a hospital, where I got to see very sick people struggling to live. The worst were the small children in the burn ward who were often there because illness is sometimes treated with superstitious practices of throwing children into fires, perhaps to exorcise demons.
OK, I think I described my depression pretty well in that last paragraph, but I don't want to overpower my comments with negativity. So I'll move onto what was so great about what I did and why I think every person in the U.S., especially geeks, should try going to a developing country, preferable before they get too old and set in their ways.
It was an experience that has absolutely changed my life. Perhaps it was because I was a geek, but I found myself particularly affected by my exposure to different cultures. This is both good and bad: if you learn how to let it affect you positively, it's good. If you get overwhelmed and depressed from it, it's bad at least in the short term. But in either case, you're living a new experience and life seems fresh and vibrant, like you're a child learning everything for the first time again. Geeks are, I believe, especially "good" at empathy, which is the essential ingredient to building bridges across cultures. Ideally, geeks also need something like a mentor so that their idealism and empathy aren't used against them. So teaming up with other geeks with more experience is probably a really good idea.
Here are the positive things my visits to Haiti and Ethiopia have meant to me: I'll never take all of the luxuries I have here in the US for granted again (I'm still pushing toward low-tech living in my own life). I'll never take some of our incredibly strong and vibrant democratic instituions for granted. I'll never believe some of the bizarre rhetoric that comes out of US politician's mouths about how poor people and countries are there because they don't apply themselves enough. This is easy to say if you've isolated yourself from poverty your whole life, as most U.S. politicians have. Go to a poor country, and you'll see how hard people there work for a couple dollars a day or even the chance to have a job.
If you want to view "reality" as it is for most people on earth, you absolutely must leave the U.S. and learn about human cultures elsewhere. It will make you stronger, more compassionate, and more able to see things from multiple perspectives. In my book, you'll have achieved "UberGeek" status.