Last year, I went to a Sierra Club meeting featuring a slide show on Nepal. Older men and women, with enviable endurance, had spent a couple of weeks hiking the rigorous Annapurna trail. They had brought back gorgeous pictures, which they shared with a small audience of 30 or so. We gathered in the Saratoga Library meeting room, and for over two hours, lived vicariously the experience of traveling to Kathmandu, and then to the north of the Annapurna range.

What surprised and pleased me was the attention these American travelers paid to the people they met. The slides not only showed the stunning scenery but also the smiling Nepali, Newari, and Sherpa. The presenters were wonderful, warm, generous, open-minded, charitable.

By the end of the talk, though, I realized that the promise of this cross-cultural encounter was not fully realized. It had not changed the visitors substantially, or deepened their understanding of the other. The overall impression one got was that the Nepali people were poor, and their technology primitive. True? Yes. Insightful? Hardly.

It seemed every encounter with a Nepali person only helped to reaffirm the Americanness of the visitors. Nepali customs and traditions were described as alien, and always compared unfavorably with American customs. Scant mention was made of the cheerfulness of the Nepali people, how happiness seems to pervade this so-called poor country. The focus was never far from what makes us Americans different from those Nepalis, but rarely on the humanity we have in common.

Yes, there is a huge gulf between us and them. It is not because of their poverty alone; it is also caused by our affluence and self-consciousness. Our culture and our conditioning create and nurture this gulf. We are conditioned to view ourselves as different from the rest of the world; we are special, superior. We are not like them. Just this month, in the wake of Katrina, we proved our specialness once again by refusing the label “refugees,” which we think is demeaning; so we created a new label for ourselves: “evacuees.”

Ethnic, tribal, and now national identity seems to define us modern humans, and few of us recognize how severely it limits our perception. Every time we have an opportunity to see someone else up close, someone different from us, we return not with changed eyes or a new perspective, but with a stronger sense of our own identity. We’ve lost the ability to empathize, to see things from another perspective, to put ourselves into another person’s shoes, and to allow that experience to change us. And we are poorer for it.