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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Seeing the Elephant

If you've ever spent significant time abroad, there's just something about it that is uncommunicable about your experience - that's what I'm talking about today. If you've been abroad, tell me where, when, and if you agree - I'd love to hear about it!

There is a phrase that combat veterans sometimes use when referring to the experiences of war and why they are so often reluctant to talk about it. It's called "seeing the elephant." It's an odd phrase that has some interesting origins, but I don't really want to get into that, but here's Wikipedia if you really want to know:

"Seeing the Elephant" Wiki

What I really want to talk about is the meaning the phrase. 

Currently, the phrase seems to pop up a lot among military combat veterans, particularly the enlisted. When someone has "seen the elephant," it means they have seen combat. 

It sounds simple, but there are a lot of dimensions to seeing combat - I was reading "Shooter" by Jack Coughlin and he talks about seeing the elephant. He says that if you've never felt the sting of smoke in your eyes, never heard a bullet zing by you, never killed a man, never smelled the stench of death, then you can never really talk about war with veterans. 

He says that in order for you to truly understand what war is, you have to be there and experience it yourself. Otherwise, war is just something sterilized you've seen on TV or read about in books.

This may seem like a clumsy parallel, but I believe that living abroad is the same way - you just have to be there to understand what kind of experience living in China is. When you've walked through the Hutongs of Beijing,

                         When you've hung out with people that don't speak your language,

When you smell the garbage dump you pass by every day to get to class (or go to a restaurant),

When you go across the world and meet wonderful friends who become your adopted family,

When you meet a girl you like and she likes you, but her dialect is so heavy you can't communicate well,

When you've been disturbed in the middle of the night by 'women of the night' coming into your hotel room.

When you've tried and failed to understand so much dialect from random cities that you feel like your language study has been worthless,

When you go down to a place as old, majestic, and historic as the Yellow River with your buddies just to skip rocks and kill time,

there's just something that is beyond communication to others. You tell them and they say, "that's cool," but that's all. There's just an added dimension there which is impossible to really convey. You had to be there.

You had to see the elephant. 

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