Exchange Matters / September 4, 2014

Letter from the President: Take the 100-Foot Journey

I have always believed that travel can take many forms. Reading a great novel, learning history, speaking another language, exploring a new cuisine or getting to know someone from another culture—each of these activities allows you to expand your horizons in ways that mirror a trip abroad.

Richard Morais’ novel The Hundred Foot Journey, now a Hollywood film produced by Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and starring Helen Mirren, divinely illustrates how travel abroad can broaden ones’ horizons.

Morais wrote about a young Indian boy born near a slum who becomes a three-star chef in Paris later in life. His is a physical, psychological, spiritual, and gastronomical journey that the characters and the audience embark on together. Morais spells-out what can happen when worlds collide both literally and figuratively.

You don’t have to travel far to explore other worlds.

What I loved most about the film and the book was its underlying message, which the title embodies. The Hundred Foot Journey succinctly speaks to what we have been promoting for decades: you don’t have to travel far to explore other worlds. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of crossing the street.

I recently had the chance to interview Richard Morais to learn a little more about him, his work, and how his life experiences shaped his work. It turns out he has a fascinating background full of the cross-cultural experience that fill both his book and our network’s work. Morais was born in Portugal, raised in Switzerland and lived most of his life as an American expatriate. Global Ties U.S. will be posting a full video of my conversation with him next month on our website,, but I wanted to give you a taste of the fascinating conversation we had. What follows is an excerpt from our discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Clinton: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How has your life experience shaped you personally and professionally?

Richard Morais: My mother’s family is from New York, and she went as an exchange student to the University of Toronto where she met my father. My father’s side of the family are Portuguese. My grandfather was self-made, was a captain of a ship at 19 and rose through the ranks of the Portuguese diplomatic corps. He was stationed in Norway, taking care of the Portuguese cod fisherman. So my father was born in Norway, and then in the middle of the war his family moved to Newfoundland. My dad came of age in Canada in the 1950s. So I have a very confused cultural background. My father moved around internationally for work, so my brothers were born in Spain, and I was born in Portugal. But at 10 months old, we moved to Switzerland because that is where all major multinational corporations were moving their headquarters. I spoke fluent Swiss-German with friends and American English at home.

When you’re listening to your own voice, you’ve lost the argument.

I grew up with this homesickness, this pining for a sort of idyllic place. I fit in in Switzerland, but I also knew I didn’t belong. I had never been in America, but I had an American passport, I had always said “I am an American.” So at the age of 16, I went to Sarah Lawrence College [in New York]. That’s when I realized I’m not really an American either. Being 16 or 17 anywhere is unsettling, but it’s even more unsettling if you don’t know what country you’re from.

JC: How do you think that experience shaped your story?

RM: All my work tends to be about culture clashes. I think that comes partially from my own internal clash between a WASP New York background and this self-made Portuguese background. And I want to honor and revere both parts of my heritage. And then you throw in my Switzerland roots and things start getting confusing very quickly.

All of my stories try and work out how you both honor a home culture and country, and yet deal with a world that is not static or homogenous. If you aren’t really clear what your cultural center is, then how do you find home in a world that is very mobile and fluid?

JC: The Global Ties network is made up of over 40,000 volunteers dedicated to opening minds and bridging cultures. What advice do you have for us?

RM: I think that hectoring, speechifying, and lecturing is not the way to do it. Gestures speak more than all the well-meaning political speeches.

When you’re listening to your own voice, you’ve lost the argument. If you’re not listening to the person across the table from you, and speaking in the language they understand, you’re not going to get anywhere.


By: Jennifer Clinton PhD, President, Global Ties U.S.