Funny how books find us at the right moment. I'm working on my 4Cs paper--about critical empathy and service learning--and Three Cups of Tea's themes continue to resonate. The call to listen, even when common ground is absent. Empathy involves shutting up. I think in my presentation I'm going to talk a little about Mortensen's relationship with his mentor in Pakistan, Haaj Ali, who respectfully tells him to shut his mouth and listen to the people he's serving, to shut up, to understand, to consider.
And everytime I start to lose myself in the book's idealism, I think about the irony of the text. Three Cups of Tea unapologetically turns Mortensen into an icon. He is a rugged individual, a hero, a cowboy who doesn't return phone calls or show up on time. This individualism becomes the biggest cultural difference between Mortensen and the villagers he works with in Pakistan. Mortensen looks around at the kids in the village and wants to build his schools more quickly. Hurry up. Slow down, Haaj Ali tells him, look at the mountains. They'll be here long after you and those kids. Mortensen feels dissonance with a culture that values the longview, the collective, moreso than the individual. And yet the text itself is about just that: the individual, the lone hero. That is the book's irony.
The book is problematic in other ways too. Three Cups of Tea makes quick mention of a trend that develops at Mortensen's schools--boys who quickly leave their villages after reaching a particular level of learning. So then are the schools actually serving to de-stabilize these villages? Mortensen and his board decide to focus on levels below a fifth-grade level and also on girls, who are less likely to get an education and flee. Interesting, but here again, the text glosses and obscures the context. I picture Mortensen--the Westerner--pulling strings, carefully controlling how much education is enough and how much is too much. Such is the limit of the genre. Mortensen's story is ultimately a memoir, a limited and limiting narrative, one that leaves questions.