Today’s guest is James Thomas, the host of Four Seas One Family, a podcast aiming to show how common the human experience is and break down the barriers that divide us. As an American immigrant who now lives and works in Taiwan, James’ experiences in Asia have taught him so much of the connectedness and shared nature of the human race, something he felt compelled to bring to light with his own podcast. For James, the medium is so direct and accessible to listeners that it makes perfect sense as the vessel for his message.
During our chat we look at James’ background and the years leading up to his life in Taiwan and then move onto some of his underlying philosophy and the experiences that informed this. James emphasizes the concepts of trust and family and has a few interesting anecdotes that illustrate his ideas on human unity. Our guest also offers some insight into his relationship with the podcasting medium and the greater practice of storytelling and information sharing. Familiar themes arise of cultural exchange and the affirmation that blossoms out of this and James is very quick to optimistically drive home how we can all do our part to build a better, more connected planet. For all this and more, be sure to tune in!
• How James found himself working in Taiwan. (01:54)
• Some of the most common traits that unite all humans. (05:37)
• The importance of trust throughout cultures.(06:52)
• What audio and podcasts have to offer in terms of achieving James’ goal.(10:21)
• The power of sharing stories on Four Seas One Family. (12:20)
• Comparing altruistic podcasts with those with other motivations.(13:41)
• James’ experience as an immigrant and a ‘stranger’ away from home. (15:59)
• Learning about yourself through the study of others’ cultures.(17:50)
• The hopes James has for making positive change.(19:15)
• And much more!
James Thomas, Host of Four Seas One Family
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[0:00:02.6] MP: Hi and welcome to Causecasts. I’m your host, Mathew Passy. Here at Causecasts, we have one simple mission: To highlight the amazing folks who are using podcast as a way to raise awareness for good causes. Whether that’s a non-profit they work with, a charity they support, a social justice campaign they are championing for, a medical condition they are battling or someone who is just looking to make a positive impact on their local community, state, country or the world.
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[0:00:49.7] MP: Taking Causecasts all the way around the globe, 12 hours ahead of us in Taiwan, we are speaking with James Thomas. He is the host of the Four Seas, One Family Podcast and he has a very unique goal, he’s trying to show the world that we, as people, as everybody being human, doesn’t matter skin color, race, creed, culture, religion, sexuality, it doesn’t matter where you are, we have so much more in common that we typically think and we are excited to bring him on Causecasts. James, thank you so much for joining us today.
[0:01:20.8] JT: Hey, thanks for having me on, I’m really glad to be here because you know, we do have a lot more in common than we think.
[0:01:26.8] MP: You have an interesting story, I think that led you to this project. I mean, first off, you are and ex pat, you are an American living overseas and I suppose, when you first started the podcast, a little bit of it was to sort of help deal with that situation, help to talk to other people who are living in the similar fashion, who have gone through a similar experience and work that way up.
When did that sort of shift and change into what it is you’re doing today about this more bringing us all together motivation?
[0:01:54.9] JT: I would consider myself an immigrant at this point because I’ve been out here for almost 30 years. Being an expat carries on a connotation that you knowingly will go someplace and work temporarily or do something temporarily on whatever project that may be, whether you were forced to live overseas or not and with that mindset, you know you’re going to either leave that place or return home.
I’m an immigrant because I have made this place my home because I’ve gotten myself so much tied into the culture here and basically, my whole impetus in all of this is because you know, in a particular place where I went to school, I went to school in upstate New York. Courtland State SUNY School. At that time, in order to get out of the school, we had to learn a second language and everybody was learning the popular language, Spanish, of course, coming from New York, you know, Nueva York and you know, French, the romantic language.
What I chose to study Chinese, Mandarin Chinese and about that time is when Dong Shao Ping was building up a name in the United States and everybody was thinking about China as the next rising star in that case. I decided to go that route. Also, my family has ties out here and I’m an African American, okay? It’s kind of strange. I said, okay, let me go into learning Mandarin Chinese, I’m studying Mandarin Chinese in the States then one day, like something out of a kung fu movie, my teacher said, “James, if you really want to learn Mandarin Chinese, you have to go to China.”
Within about three seconds I said, “Okay.” Didn’t really imagine how much work that would take but I said, “Okay, why not.” Then the next semester, I applied and say, okay, I want to go to China and ended up in China and did a lot of things three, we probably can talk about that later but over time, when people look at me, they’ve never seen – there’s a lot of places I’ve been in mainland China and even now, the parts of Asia that never seen an African American, a black person. They are kind of shocked and for me to be able to converse with them and show them that well, “I’m much like you, in the end, you’re much like me.”
I got to make very close and intimate relationship with people who have never thought they would be able to touch a person like me. And over time, you get to learn that yes, people have a lot more in common than we think then I went back to the States, I got notifications to work for the CIA, FBI but that’s a, “No, I’m not, I’m going to go back to Asia,” continue my education and got a scholarship to come out to wonderful Taiwan, lived there ever since.
Wow, that’s one of the reasons why I want to show everybody we have a lot more in common than we think.
[0:04:08.7] MP: That’s so fascinating that to walk around the place to go talk to people and to have them look at you and I guess, being so much shocked who have never seen someone who looks and acts and appears the way you do.
I mean, I also imagine where you are, not only obviously are you African American and that’s going to stand out. You’re also a tall gentleman so I’m sure you just sort of tower over much of the population wherever you're walking so you really stand out wherever you go.
[0:04:32.9] JT: Isn’t it so funny. Obviously, you know, guys getting tall here because of the diet, there’s other things with their diet is not so good but it’s quite comical. I remember times when I’m on the telephone speaking the local Mandarin Chinese, there’s another local language here, it’s publicly known as Taiwanese and I’m on the telephone, I’m speaking to them in Mandarin and I think, well, there’s something strange about this voice, this probably is from another part of China and when they meet me in person, they like, they’re shocked.
I’ve had good teachers but it is a welcoming being an immigrant, in this case, do have ties here.
[0:05:02.2] MP: I’m curious to get back to sort of the main focus that we, as human beings, we’re all just that, we’re all humans in the same planet and a little itty bitty differences that we as societies have turned it to big differences and we work to tear us apart, they’re nowhere near as common as the things that are truly what makes us the same.
I wonder, in your travels, in your conversations, going out to the far reaches of China and Asia and seeing things that folks probably in America listening to this can’t even imagine, what are some of those common traits, the most common things that we have that we all share that you notice has a pattern, as a recurring theme in all this?
[0:05:37.6] JT: It is relationship with family, okay? Regardless. We still have the same common denominator that link us to our family and this extent to that for example, you probably understand the fetal parity type of thinking here in Asia where their clan or there are certain commune of people will rely on each other for the benefit of all.
In some cases, certain cultures, it can be all about the family and everyone else is just not part of it to a certain extent. That is a commonality that goes. Also, the way we look at people we revere, whether they’re a family members, elders, heroes, that’s common across all cultures and that’s something that coming from an outside of a culture I would say, looking into another one, there are certain dynamics that may not be totally equivocated but there is more in common than we can even think of.
I can’t name anything specific at this moment but if I can, I’ll put the input in.
[0:06:27.4] MP: Well I guess, maybe a different way to ask that question is, what’s the one thing that you found that you have in common with people of such a different culture that surprised you the most? Where you look at somebody who clearly looks very different and at some points, spoke very different from the way you did, came from a very different place, lives in a very different setting but then, all of a sudden, what was the first thing that sort of hit you that said, how we are the same? That really, took you back.
[0:06:52.6] JT: The word is trust. It’s very interesting when you meet somebody who supposedly be different than you. You hear from your nationalistic propaganda that people from this country are like this or you find out that when you go overseas, people overseas think that you are like this because they heard this in their media or picked it up from the movies and stuff like that. That thing is trust.
I mean, I’ve been in situations where when I first meet people out there and you take part in certain activities, I play airsoft out here with some friends, I run track and field out here, I have a track and field background. I go to the gym and I’ve made relationships that over the years - I met people, I’ve seen their family grow, I’ve seen their kids grow up going to college.
There’s a certain kind of trust that builds up. I remember times when – okay, one particular time this sticks out in my mind is, I was in a car accident, I was on a highway, car hit me from behind, nobody got hurt but the car behind me got damaged really bad but I get out the car and handling paper, the police come and all of a sudden, I get a phone call.
And one of my, you know, Taiwanese friend say, “Hey, James,” they have a certain nickname for me and I’ll explain that later but they say, “Hey, you’re in an accident, I’m sending over one of our brothers over to help you.” I was like, number one, how do you know I’m a car accident?
He said, “Because another brother, another friend of ours was driving the other direction and they saw it and they called me so we call somebody else, a friend of our’s, we call them brothers,” and he’s a mechanic so he’s already shot off, took off from his company to come and see if I’m okay and if I need any help.
This happened like wait a minute, how did you know this? Your guy’s already started moving on my behalf. I mean, to be honest, I was like wow, because we built up a trusting relationship like this but I know too, based on the culture here that I’m going to one day have to return that, I welcome it. This is the thing about trust and maybe I should add another word called, kind of brotherhood.
Look, an African American, in the middle of an Asian society getting this kind of love, this is something that we need to think about. Can this be something that people can share.
[0:08:51.2] MP: I suppose in the current climate that we’re living in, where our news is telling us that we’re more divisive than other, our leaders are telling us that things are more divisive than ever. We ourselves are touting and sharing and retweeting stories of divisiveness and you versus me and us versus them and you know, we’re digging our heels in the sand and choosing sides.
I suppose, when you get down to one on one, it is easier to see where, one, we have more in common even if we can find places that we fundamentally disagree in too despite that we can trust each other, we can rely on each other, we can be empathetic towards each other.
[0:09:29.1] JT: It’s true, but not to walk up on a dream state. There are some people who have their own different kind of motives to keep us separated. To have us together may not be beneficial to their certain beliefs, whether it’s spiritual, financial, these are the things that really does exist.
People have motives but the thing is, we have to get past the tribularities and the tribalism’s to understand, let me go back, some tribalism may be good in some cases if it’s positive. But you have to get it beyond the blind sect version of tribalism and to try to find out commonalities that we can all agree on and going that direction for the future of not only our family but the future of this little blue ball we live on.
[0:10:11.9] MP: How do you use the podcast to accomplish this? How is it that you’re able to share this kind of message and thinking with people through digital audio?
[0:10:21.8] JT: I’ve been trying to go look for example, people who have lived overseas for an extended amount of time, with an extended amount of time can be say, between half a year or year and beyond. Not someone who just bounces around doing business and not really taking the initiative to learn about the culture they are in at a particular time. I’m trying to use their experience to show how their ups and downs, trials and tribulations and other personal conflicts can show that being in another culture, yes, it may be different but there’s things that you can pull out and equivocate them to maybe part of what or who you are, your beliefs systems and how it can also bridge to your cultures and belief back home.
So for example I would talk to someone who has studied in Tibet someplace and talk to them about certain events that have affect them as an expat or an immigrant and talk about how they change, how their experience changed their personal views of not only the world but also themselves. I also add in a bit of how people who they know back in their home nation viewed them living overseas and how they had to crush certain stereotypes.
Because you have to crush stereotypes both ways from your home nation and in the nation you are dealing with. So that is the bridge, I talk to people say who are from where I am at now who have lived overseas and how they have went overseas and learned, “Wait a minute, what I heard in my nation people in this part of the world are supposed to be like this” but when they get there and lived there and experience there and build friendships they learned that well it’s not really like that and this is also being transferred to both their positive and negative experiences.
[0:12:00.6] MP: So why do you – I know before we started recording, we were taking about that you are doing some video work, you are talking about exporting the wrong file form like, “I do so many video projects,” so why is it that with this project in particular you thought that audio was the right way to go? Is there something unique about producing a podcast that makes it easier to convey that message to share these stories?
[0:12:20.8] JT: You know a podcast is in your ear. You become a part of the person’s invisible motion. I mean people can listen to you in a car. People can listen to you while they’re in the gym, you’re actually go in to their head. You go into their head, you’re in their ear and they may not see you visually, I mean a podcast allows you or excuse me, the listener to actually build a more interpersonal connection with them. You want to try watching a video while you’re driving a car?
I don’t think that is a good idea to do. I don’t think that is a good idea or watch a video while riding a bike in some of these traffic congested places. No, it doesn’t work that way. Audio actually makes the listener a part of the story and the things that our listeners imagine nation can add elements based on how you present the podcast. It can add elements, helpful elements that can help further expand on the topics you are talking about in the podcast. That is the power of podcasting.
[0:13:16.4] MP: So others that are hearing this and thinking about trying to spread a positive message, trying to improve their community or improve the world, what are your suggestions for having a podcast for specifically using this medium to accomplish that. Are there things that you do differently when you are producing for more altruistic causes than you would if you would just say podcasting for your business or podcasting to sell something?
[0:13:41.7] JT: Well that question goes down to a really personal type of message that you want to believe. If you’re going to do this type of medium, you have to believe, you have to, you must believe in what you are trying to put in someone else’s ears and if you don’t, people will feel it. People will feel it if you are trying to push something that you don’t believe. You have to believe in what you’re trying to do and if your motive is to have a financial reward out of it, you still have to believe in your story. The most important thing is try to make it heart touching, personal and then it will always be of value.
[0:14:13.9] MP: It is funny you keep using the word feel because so often, we talk about this being an audio medium and how we hear the content and they were listening to this people but you are right. Some of the best podcast out there and not necessarily even just ones that are doing something altruistically for a cause but some of the best storytellers out there. Some of the best comedians out there, just some of the best people in the space.
They don’t just make you hear it. They make you feel what they are trying to do and I’ll be honest, I’ve had a lot of feels so far in doing this interviews. So it is such a unique sense to think about when you are creating what is commonly just referred to as an audio medium.
[0:14:51.6] JT: For real. I mean think about it, think about the ways you can take someone’s feeling and put it in a podcast and they can acknowledge it. It may not be they would agree with everything you present to them but for them to acknowledge that something or a way of thinking does exist and another way of thinking does exist and I feel that what I am trying to do in this podcast is to actually have that curiosity come out of people for them to ask themselves, “I wonder how it feels on the other side of the fence”. We don’t need a wall, what happens on the other side of the fence because we can see through the fence.
[0:15:25.4] MP: So, God these stories are hitting me in ways that I just didn’t think about that they were going to be hitting me.
So going back, earlier you said that you were going to tell a story. Talk a little bit more about what it’s like being overseas. I know you said you’ve been there for over 30 years and at this point that feels more like home than the US would to you but what is it like to still feel – not feel because I suppose you don’t feel that way but what is it like to supposedly have people look at you and think stranger in a strange land even though to you it is home?
[0:15:59.9] JT: Well, I have to look at it this way. When I first got here, people look at me and they’re like, “Oh there’s this black guy,” blah-blah-blah and at that age I was like, “Wait a minute, I am offended that you would look at me that way,” but after a while you learn that well, you are that. You are different and you may not be totally accepted but you can be respected. That’s what I learned, respected. What I’ve learned is that if you look different, smell different or whatever that’s the way it really is.
You have to build up a different type of rapport with people that lasts longer than what you have on your surface. Yes, I use a lot the word feel. Of course, this is the most basic thing that everyone has no matter how hardcore you wear that persona. This is something that people need to spend more time to get beyond and I just feel that me being out here, it helped me learned more of what I’m made of, what I am made out of, what’s the value that I have inside.
I also learned more about where I come from. I learned more about where I come from. I am finding out people over here and other parts of the world know a lot more about where I come from than people from my home country knows about them. Why is that? I feel people back in my home country need to know more not only about what they read in history books or hear stories. They need to experience more outside of their safe place and that’s what I hope I can do and also transmit [inaudible] through those who have experienced it out here.
[0:17:32.2] MP: It’s funny, one of the first interviews on the show I spoke to a lovely woman and a similar idea came up that in learning about others who tend to learn more about yourself too and it’s fascinating to hear that being echoed and being repeated by you in this context. It is just something I think that most of us take for granted.
[0:17:50.6] JT: And sometimes it may not be pleasant what you find out about yourself. Yeah, sometimes it is not pleasant or pleasant finding out what people like you think but then when you understand why, then you start looking for the filters to get the garbage out of the way. You take more of an effort and you are talking to people back home and they say, “Oh James be careful, this place is dangerous,” okay, fine.
Put it this way, I worry more about them in Chicago and in the South Bronx than I worry about myself in walking down the street in Vietnam or Southern Taipei or Taiwan and that’s honest but that’s the reality of the way the world is. The only thing we can do is take a grab of it, take control of it and do the best we can to make it an embetterment for everybody.
[0:18:29.7] MP: I don’t think I could have said it any better myself. So James if you wouldn’t mind could you at least tell us once again the positive change you are looking to make in Taiwanese?
[0:18:40.3] JT: I use Mandarin okay?
[0:18:41.2] MP: Go for it.
[0:18:41.8] JT: [Mandarin]
[0:19:13.8] MP: So essentially what did you say there?
[0:19:15.5] JT: Basically I just said, people need to acknowledge the love of family, trust and people. We have a lot more in common than we think but also we are four sees, one family.
[0:19:24.0] MP: Beautiful, I couldn’t have said it better myself in either language. James, thank you so much for joining us here on Causecasts. We really appreciate you taking the time.
[0:19:31.1] JT: Thank you for having me on and come back to me in about a year later and see what changes I have come up with because I am really glad that you’ve taken the time to use this topic to get the message out to everyone here and I wish you the best of luck.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:19:44.2] MP: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Causecasts. Again, if you’ve been inspired by the work of our guest, please check out the show notes in your podcast app or head to Causecasts.org. There you will find links to the work of our guest and a special donation link set up to support their favorite cause. All the proceeds are going directly to that cause minus any administration fee on the platform that they set up. None of the money is coming here to the Causecasts production.
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So if you already have a podcast for a cause or you’re thinking about launching one, join the group. It will be dedicated to providing resources and answering questions specifically for Causecasters. Hopefully we can do things like arrange some special non-profit pricing of various podcast services to help you with your venture and keep you under budget because we know a lot of people doing Causecasts are not going to be reaping in the money.
So we want to see what we can do to help you produce a high quality product, get your story out there, get people inspired and not break the bank. Lastly, if you are a Causecaster and you want to join me here on the show for an interview, please head to Causecasts.org and fill out the interview request form. We’ll take a quick look at it and if approved, we’ll schedule you for chat and show the amazing work that you are doing with Causecasts, raise some awareness for what you’re doing and ideally, raise some money as well.
Thank you so much again for staying with me and we will see you next time on Causecasts.