Keys to Connection

The Adventurous SpiritFeatures

During the KidSpirit Virtual Explorers project, four KidSpirit contributors from different parts of the world – who did not know each other beforehand – met for a series of video chats with the aim to connect authentically and go beyond the surface level identifiers that too often keep us from getting to know each other on a deeper level.

First, the editors met in pairs and asked each other a series of questions in order to get to know each other’s interests, perspectives, and deeper aspirations. They discussed questions like, “What is your favorite class in school?”; “Do you feel your community supports your values and interests?”; “What spurs you to be brave, to try new things, and to step beyond your comfort zone?”; and many others.

After these one-on-one conversations, all four editors met on a video call and gave an in-depth introduction of their partners. Each contributor then wrote a reflection about the experience.

The iridescent lights of the Hong Kong skyline stretched behind me as I waited for my call to connect. Suddenly, my phone lit up with the image of a curly haired British face, who immediately greeted me with a “Hey! My name’s Noah.” I took a nervous gulp, and tentatively repeated the greeting back. Why was I having this conversation again?

Oh, right. KidSpirit had contacted me a few weeks prior and asked if I wanted to participate in the Virtual Explorers project, an attempt to get teens from different countries, cultures, and beliefs to connect on a deeper, more meaningful level, by using a set of questions that would facilitate discussion beyond superficial platitudes. Eager to escape — at least temporarily—the homogeneity of my summer in China, I accepted the invitation almost immediately, but as I sat there, mind completely blank, I started to wonder if this was a good idea after all.

Thankfully, Noah, probably sensing my discomfort, took the lead, and in just a few minutes, we established a comfortable rapport. The topics of our conversation stretched far and wide, ranging from details about our families to hot button issues like climate change. Noah told me about his bustling home city of London, while I shared with him my experiences in the vast, metropolitan sprawl of Beijing and the quaint, suburban neighborhoods of North Carolina. We expressed delight over shared coincidences (our dads are both professors) and discussed our mutual love for video games. We also spoke of the looming stress of college applications, and Noah shared with me his aspirations to go to school in America someday.

Throughout the conversation, I found myself getting more and more comfortable. By the end, I realized that I wasn’t treating Noah like a stranger I had just met barely an hour ago. Instead, I was talking to him like a friend. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It must have been a fluke, I thought, some bizarre mental state conjured up by a combination of sleep deprivation and jet lag from just flying to Hong Kong.

But about a month later, when we met over video chat again, accompanied by the two other members of the project, Ameena and Megan, I didn’t talk to Noah the way I would talk to a stranger. In fact, I treated him exactly the same way as I did during our first conversation — like a friend. Our conversation this time was equally engaging; we were supposed to give a long, substantive introduction of each other, and I was pleasantly surprised when Noah remembered almost all of the relevant details about me. Ameena and Megan also contributed so much about their own cultures and experiences, and we quickly got past small talk to discuss deeper, more meaningful topics, such as the different problems surrounding teenagers and the importance of social advocacy. But as our discussion wound down, my question still remained: how could I have warmed up so quickly to someone I had just met?

As I pondered this question, I realized the actual circumstances of our meeting were incredibly similar to a famous study done by psychologist Arthur Aron. The experiment, dubbed “36 Questions to Love,” found that by asking 2 strangers 36 progressively more revealing questions, feelings of shared intimacy and closeness could be generated. In the same vein, the questions Noah and I asked each other created a common bond. I discovered that behind the layers of superficial differences we had, Noah was just a regular high schooler like me. We both liked movies and video games, were stressed about college applications, and lamented the terrible summer weather. Though I expected this project to highlight our differences, it ended up showing me that our similarities are what truly matter.

As I logged into the video chat account I felt both excited and nervous. I was told that I was to meet a young teenager named Megan from California. I was curious to hear about the “Cali lifestyle” and whether or not it adhered to the Hollywood stereotypes I had seen on screen.

Within minutes the video chat started to flash, showing my soon-to-be friend Megan!

I had been expecting forced discussions and awkward introductions, but instead what followed was a relaxed and pleasant conversation. I listened intently as she described her hometown, Pasadena, as well as her jam-packed summer. She told me about attending a writing camp at the New York Times, where she wrote food reviews and got to travel to different fashion districts. Megan then told me about her time in the international Oxbridge program, where she took a plane alone and explored the UK for the first time. She described how exhilarating the experience had been and how she had stepped out of her comfort zone.

Megan also told me about her life and childhood in Pasadena. She said that California in itself was an incredibly liberal state full of innovation and many cultures. Megan described the countless attractions that existed throughout her hometown, including many ethnic restaurants that carried everything, from Mexican quesadillas to Japanese sushi. Through our conversation, Megan took me past the Hollywood-California stereotypes and instead painted a new picture of California as a unique and diverse metropolitan center.

She then told me about her family and recounted her life as a middle child with two older sisters and one younger sister. I was fascinated as Megan described her experience in school, as it was so vastly different from my own. Megan also explained the importance of sustainability and its emphasis in California. Even when she was a young child, climate change was an issue that she was extremely passionate about. I was awed by her level of involvement in social issues affecting her community. The conversation stretched on for hours as we discussed a range of topics from high school courses to our favorite animals.

After this call, we were reunited two weeks later, when our meeting included two boys named Noah and Nathan. As we all shared our backgrounds and past experiences, I was amazed at the level of connection that we shared. We lived in vastly different places that ranged from California to London, more than 8,000 km apart! And yet despite this mind-boggling distance, we all shared a common love for meeting people with completely different backgrounds and sharing our collective experiences.

Overall, I had expected my virtual adventure to be slightly awkward and uncomfortable, but it was quite the opposite. This experience helped undermine preconceived ideas and stereotypes I had about certain places. Hearing stories about the childhood and life of Noah, Nathan and Megan broadened my perspective about the cultures and lifestyles that exist throughout the world. It taught me the importance of dismantling cultural stereotypes in order to fully understand the true lifestyles and values of different places.

“I was born on July 30 at 11:46 a.m. in a huge hospital in Pasadena, California”: a common introduction I give when telling someone about myself. You might read that sentence and think nothing of me; it is a simple, factual statement. While you may conclude I am a Leo — stereotypically bold, unnecessarily talkative, and incredibly sassy — there is little else to gather about who I am as an individual from this routine intro.

The Virtual Explorers project forced me to go beyond my generic, unoriginal self-description, which was an absolutely terrifying experience. Most people have a tendency to play it safe when sharing information about themselves with strangers (rightfully so); however, this experience demanded we throw caution to the wind and pour our hearts out. I love meeting new people, I love talking to new people, I love learning about new people, but I realized that I hate talking about myself. A significant contrast to typical Leos! But that is just it: there is no such thing as a “typical person.”

We, as humans, fear judgment, so I understand the hesitation to willingly share the trials and triumphs of our lives the instant we meet new people. Prior to this project, I, too, wanted only to discuss my mediocrity, in hopes that talking about “normal” things like school and homework would prevent scaring off any potential friends.

It was liberating to know that I was supposed to bring every ounce of my true self to my first conversation with Ameena, one of my partners for this project. She wanted and needed to know my story, and I felt at peace because I knew that she would not immediately flee at the sight of my quirkiness. Ameena’s kindness and acceptance were unparalleled by that of anyone I had met before; she allowed me to open my heart, and feel confident in sharing my honest beliefs. By asking questions like “what inspires you?” and “who/what do you believe in?” we bypassed the uncomfortable small talk that is traditionally a requirement in teenage conversations.

Nearly two hours after I met Ameena, I felt a connection to her and her family. Although born in Ottawa, Ameena lived in Pakistan for a few years before eventually returning to Canada, where she currently resides. This past March, Ameena ventured to Iraq to delve deeper into her religion, Islam. As one would assume, Iraq was quite the culture shock for Ameena — women were required to be completely covered from head to toe, and poverty was all too prevalent. Nevertheless, Ameena was able to strengthen her devotion to Islam and explore the religious sites she set out to visit. Religion is a paramount part of Ameena’s identity, but so is her passion for service, women’s rights, debate, international relations, music, and sports. She is intelligent, enthusiastic, and incredibly complex in the most beautiful way.

I discovered even more about her religion, her school systems, and her interests, and I learned how easy it is to bond with and relate to someone a thousand miles away when I forget that society has taught me to mute my personality and expect the same from others.

When the time came to introduce Ameena to Noah and Nathan, our partner-pair for the Virtual Explorers project, I could not stop talking about her wildly exciting adventures and exceptional brilliance. She felt like an old friend and provided me with a sense of confidence to continue talking to more strangers. I explained how Ameena loves seafood, hates government corruption, and one day hopes to work with the UN — trying to properly capture the intricacies of her amazing life in just a one-hour conversation.

When all was said and done, I reflected on how I was initially petrified about the prospect of genuinely talking to people. I learned that being nervous is okay, discomfort is imperative for pushing your boundaries, and everyone is interesting if you simply give them a chance to tell their story.

Slightly anxious, I finally replied to the email stating that I was ready to start my first KidSpirit task. A typical teen with an affinity for laziness and a stubborn dislike for commitment, I was surprised that I had followed through; but the innovation of the project intrigued me, and I was keen to delve into the depths of the KidSpirit universe. In the Virtual Explorers project, I would communicate with someone from across the world to try to surpass superficial levels of small talk and really get to know someone through the internet.

The first person I talked to was Nathan, a Chinese-American currently living in North Carolina, but who had lived in Beijing earlier in his childhood. Sensing some anxiety on both sides of the conversation, I tried to take the lead and it worked: we hit it off. It felt completely natural to ask him deep questions, even though we had only just met. Having always lived in London, one of the world’s largest cities, I was interested to hear about his transition from the vast, expansive urban mass of Beijing to the sleepy pleasant towns of North Carolina. Being able to speak with Nathan, who has had such a different life than mine, was enlightening for me. Although I am English, I am also an American citizen, and hearing the perspective of a foreigner moving to America was very valuable to me and will help me form opinions about whether to move there in the future. We were also able to profess our shared love for films and video games, alternative worlds where we can escape the pressures of reality and let ourselves experience someone else’s creation.

After our conversation, Nathan and I were linked with Megan and Ameena, from Los Angeles and Pakistan/Canada respectively. Once again, we were instantly able to break through the barriers of everyday conversation. While introducing each other, we dove straight into more meaningful subjects than small talk usually generates, for example social issues and future plans like university, and places we might like to live. It was interesting to compare and contrast some very different viewpoints all across North America. Ameena’s journey between Canada and Pakistan was intriguing, and it was fruitful to be able to hear her comparisons between Toronto and Pakistan, as well as other parts of Canada. Megan, on the other hand, informed me about her time growing up in the Los Angeles area, which was helpful, as I might like to live there in the future.

Although we all hailed from different parts of the globe, it was striking how similar we ended up being, and how many interests we shared, from politics to TV. The conversations I had really enriched my understanding of people my age around the world. Having had a fantasy of what growing up in North America was like, I found it incredibly interesting to investigate what similarities and differences I had with people my age from around the world. For example, Nathan’s preference for the country instead of the city interested me. As I have always been a city boy myself and haven’t been able to imagine the change, being able to discuss this with him aided my understanding of what life in American suburbia is really like, and this could possibly change my life.

Overall, I found the experience to be a delight in all facets of the word. I was able to get to know wonderful new people who I would have never met if it weren’t for KidSpirit. As well as learning about others, I was able to learn about myself and realize what distinguishes me: I discovered that I am more confident than I thought, and that, to non-Brits, my most noticeable feature is my accent. To think about the deeper aspects of life with people I had never met before was almost a surreal experience in how natural it felt. I would normally only delve into the details of what we talked about with my closest friends at school; to do this with complete strangers should have been a daunting task, yet it felt unforced and natural to talk about such topics. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Megan Kelleher is currently a junior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California. Megan's hobbies include playing water polo, thrift-shopping, collecting postcards, and baking. She has a strong passion for writing and hopes to become an international journalist one day. Noah Langford is 16 and from London, United Kingdom. He loves creative writing , playing and watching sports, following politics, and discussing philosophy. Ameena Naqvi is in the 11th grade at White Oaks Secondary School in Toronto, Canada. Her hobbies include drawing, playing the flute, and reading. She has a passion for music and writing. Nathan Zhang is a 10th grader currently living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He lived in China for about three years. His hobbies include reading, writing, gaming, computer hardware, and enjoying all kinds of food.