“Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”

This quote taken from David Oliver Relin’s book, Three Cups of Tea, aptly describes the central framework through which this compelling narrative operates. Relin’s book relates the story of Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer who vowed to construct 55 schools in Taliban territory after failing to summit K2. Mortenson devoted his entire life to constructing these schools, especially for girls, in the hopes of educating Pakistani children.

Mortenson’s story demonstrates the power of one man’s vision to help end educational inequality and bridge the cultural divide between the United States and an area wrought with militant insurgency. Mortenson faced many difficulties in turning his dream into a reality. However, through perseverance and ingenuity, he ultimately was able to promote a safe, educational environment for the Baltistani people.

The aforementioned quote comes at a crucial point in the novel. Mortenson has demonstrated his commitment to the Baltistani people; however, he has done so with a westerner’s mindset. Haji Ali tells Mortenson, “You must make time to share three cups of tea” (Relin, 150).  A third cup of tea with the people of Korphe symbolizes the welcoming of that person into their kinship system. “The third time you take a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die” (Relin, 150).

Mortenson realized that day that Haji Ali had taught him the most important lesson he had ever learned in his entire life. Mortenson states, “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly…Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started” (Relin, 150). Indeed, Mortenson is right in his assessment. The United States presumes the role of the absolute arbiter in most instances. Only through careful thought and reflection can an individual and a nation arrive at an appropriate decision. This is precisely what Haji Ali attempted to convey to Mortenson. “Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

Mortenson’s previous statement begs the question, “What was his mission statement? Blind altruism? Honest ignorance? A personal humanitarian duty? Regardless, Mortenson quickly realized that his conception of how to best assist the Baltistani people changed throughout the duration of his stay. Mortenson learned to listen. This is precisely what Three Cups of Tea seeks to accomplish: to invite the reader to abandon judgment and embark on a self-reflective journey of his/her own.

After a careful reading of the book, the reader comes to realize that Mortenson’s story serves a greater purpose on an individual level. Three Cups of Tea allows the reader to reflect on and promote tolerance and understanding of highly contentious issues within areas marred by conflict. Voluntarism, not interventionism, is the way to make the world a better place. Mortenson serves as a testament to the fact that it is possible to build bridges of genuine understanding between cultures. This is precisely what the individual must seek to accomplish.

Through promoting awareness of today’s most salient issues and learning to listen, we too can follow Mortenson’s footsteps. His story reminds us to “think global, act local.” Mortenson did not seek to disestablish the boundaries of “terrorist/non-terrorist.” Rather, he learned to accept human beings for what they are: human. Through community outreach programs and the promotion of educational opportunities, we can strive to end educational inequality. Only through acting locally and engaging in micro-level change can we hope to re-educate on a global scale.

We cannot tell mountains what to do. We can only listen to them, understand them, and reason with them. This is precisely what I have taken away from Mortenson’s story. This is my own cup of tea. Only through opening myself up to new experiences and reeducating myself can I hope to promote tolerance and understanding. My views are no more sacred than any one else’s. All we can do is listen. All we can do is understand. That…is the only thing worth fighting for.