My breath dragged through my lungs, slow, scraping. The sound of it filled my head. More fully than the air filled my lungs. My chest felt heavy with the leaden, staggering motion.
Painstakingly, I pulled. It felt like I was gathering my very lifesource with every ounce of my strength. How had this ritual I practiced every moment of my life never had this much weight before? I could hear the tension between life and death in every breath I inhaled.
Struggling against the fight for oxygen, I broke through the surface where water meets air. Blinking in the sunlight as the ocean water spilled down my face, I tore my snorkeling mask off and sucked in air like I’d never tasted it before. I wiped the Fiji water out of my eyes. The salt stung.
After just moments above the surface, breathing resumed its easy rhythm. I focused my attention on other things. The distant islands dotting every corner of the horizon, each a hazy blue. I could see nine from here. The gentle dance of sun rays through the weave of water around me, sparkling, captivating.
I took a deep breath: I was ready for more. Fitting the goggles to my face, I bit down on the snorkeling tube, practiced drawing in air, and dove in. The ocean enveloped me in a friendly hug. And as I became completely immersed, I began my labored practice of breathing once more.
I didn’t realize it then, but I had been exercising this way of breathing for the seven weeks of my summer in Fiji. My submersion into an unfamiliar culture.
Imagine something as basic as breathing, something so normal to you that you don’t usually notice how vital it is. And suddenly your access is limited. You plunge into unknown waters and you can’t breathe how you always have. Just like that, you are hyper aware of how much you use air.
Our culture is almost as essential to our everyday living as oxygen. We constantly breathe with ease every day. We don’t usually think consciously about it. Until it’s not there.
Access to daily transportation, our choice of music, the food our family likes to make, our hygiene routines, the clothes we pick out, how we greet people, our concept of time. We don’t often think about how our personal ways of living are actually quite unique to our culture—they’re not always universal.
Right or left side of the road. Grilled chicken or warm roti. Ripped jeans or sulus. There’s not a right way, not a best way, not necessarily a universal way. How do we approach culture? How do we treat others who don’t live like we do?
We’re not usually all that aware of our particular way of living until we’re thrown into unfamiliarity. Here’s the challenge: Even when we’re above the surface, can we practice having a greater awareness of the simplest things? The inhale and exhale.
I’m not asking that we disown what we know. But I want to encourage us to live in a greater awareness. What do we practice daily and why? And further, what are the practices of the people we surround ourselves with? Do they live just like we do? If so, how can we expand our circles? Or if not, how can we celebrate the diversity of the culture we see in our friends and family?
Maybe it starts with a trip to the ocean.