e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


three cups of tea

I just finished Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin, a book I thought I would hate. Mortensen, a former mountainer, gets lost after a failed attempt to climb K2, happens upon a village in remote Pakistan, and ends up devoting himself to building schools throughout Central Asia. Three Cups of Tea tell his story. My suspicion on the book had less to do with the fact that the book is popular and more to do with the book's marketing. Mortensen, a real-life Indiana Jones. Mortensen, the heroic Christian from the West. Mortensen's schools, in the shadow of the Taliban. I feared Mortensen was an x-games-loving character from a Mountain Dew commercial. I unfairly associated the book with another popular non-fiction text about East-West collisions, Reading Lolita in Tehran, whose hero narrative and canonization of Western culture (Iran needs more Norton anthologies!) troubled me.

Three Cups of Tea shows more self-awareness and goes a long way toward problematizing its own narrative. In fact, the ethics of intervention serve as one of the text's central themes. Mortensen knows his intentions are good but he also knows that good intentions aren't enough. Ethically and pragmatically, he must avoid imposing Western ideology. To do so would result in peril for himself and anyone he associates with in the villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed the book's middle act contains several conflicts between Mortsensen and various extremists in the region who are critical of his outsider status and the fact that his schools educate girls.

That tension over Mortensen's outsider status provides the book with its title. Anxious over the slow progress of his work, a tribal elder tells him: "Sit down. And shut your mouth...You're making everyone crazy." The elder goes on to explain that to "thrive...you must respect our ways" by sharing three cups of tea, one as strangers, one as friends, and one as family (150). In other words, identification through listening and connecting, not coming in and imposing. "Shut your mouth," the elder says. Listen.

This text speaks to so many teaching scenarios. The teacher as a Western hero, a missionary, an Indiana Jones, having adventures among those not yet washed in all the West (or "the academy") has to offer. "Shut your mouth" and listen. Mortensen goes to these villages with money, with privelege, with resources, with material goods. Still he must listen. What do I know about my students' interests, inclinations, intentions, and values? The text also speaks to the campus-community, service learning relationship. Shut up and listen. I know how to improve practices at your agency. I know what you should do. Shut up and listen. Three Cups of Tea ultimately represents and advocates a critical empathy, a hard-earned identification among West and East, among teachers and learners. I thought I'd hate it. I don't.

Mortensen, Greg, and David Oliver Relin. _Three Cups of Tea_. New York: Penguin, 2006.

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