Look, I know I’m preaching to the converted here when I say travel is a great thing.
I’m talking to you, backpacking from Ushuaia to Alaska; to you, out volunteering in West Africa; to you, drinking your way through Europe; to you, teaching English across the seas; to you, study abroad student not doing much studying; to you, helping local women earn a living by starting their own small business.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already out there doing something fabulous, so you don’t need me to reaffirm your wanderlust.
I’m not going to say your travel habit isn’t an addiction, but I will tell you it’s healthy. In times like these, it may even be necessary – especially now, when the world seems more screwed up than usual.
Part of the reason we’re seeing such a backlash from disenchanted voters in the Western world is, I believe, that the push and pull of globalization paradoxically means that we are as individuals both more and less connected to each other.
Technology can link you up with someone on the other side of the world and simultaneously distance you from the person sitting next to you on the train. Getting instant news from a foreign country on your device or TV screen can somehow inform you about what’s occurring and sever you from caring.
We’re seeing fear and insecurity manifest itself in defensiveness, outrage, and greater insularity. People are feeling like they need to shut “Others” out (literally) in order to better protect themselves.
On the one hand, it’s a logical enough response to risk – a defense mechanism. But it’s also true that people like Donald Trump in the US and Pauline Hanson in my native Australia are leveraging that for political gain. They’re hijacking the valid concerns that a significant voting population have and using them to smother our society’s generosity to outsiders. They’re encouraging people to look out for themselves and nobody else.
And I wonder: what if everyone just got out a bit more? Like really out – out of their hometowns, out of their home countries?
Because there is something about becoming the outsider yourself that changes you. Or, actually, there are a few things.
And instead of photos from the Andes or from your European pub crawl or African safari, perhaps these internal changes are the things we need to demonstrate and communicate when we talk to people about our travels.
1. You learn to live out of your comfort zone.
You have to. Unless you spend your entire existence within an expat compound — and even if you surround yourself with creature comforts like food that you know and love — you’re going to have to get used to things not running the way they do back home.
When I landed in South America, suddenly everyone looked different. Well actually, suddenly I looked different, and people stared at me. I felt like meat. I felt like an object. It was uncomfortable.
I didn’t know that many people could fit in a bus – surely it should be outlawed as a breach of my universal human right of personal space.
Everything took longer, because people were always late – if they showed up at all. It was common for someone to tell you they were “arriving” (ie. on their way) when they’d just gotten out of bed and needed an hour to get ready and another hour to get to you.
But guess what? I got used to the staring – and that in turn helped me be more comfortable in my own skin. I came to love those crowded bus trips, which became touchpoints in my memories of daily life in South America. I learned to wait, I discovered what a queue really is; I learned to savor stillness, space to just breathe and be.
Stay long enough and you find that more than living outside of your comfort zone, it’s about expanding your comfort zone – being able to be comfortable about things that initially challenged you.
Moving to (or even just visiting) a different country is, fundamentally, about being okay with change.
2. You learn humility.
Part of embracing the new and challenging environment is learning cultural humility. You may have some gut reactions about things that just feel wrong, that outrage you. But because you’re not in the majority, you keep your mouth shut more than you would back home.
And so you think before you speak. And when you think about it, you realize that maybe you’re actually more judgmental than you’d like to think, and maybe you’re not the authority on all matters of morality or style.
One of the most jarring things for me when I first arrived in South America was the number of women who wore figure-hugging clothing – without the appropriate figure, or so I thought. Muffin tops and more abounded.
In my home country, Lycra is only appropriate for the gym, or worn with a long shirt covering your bottom. Not so in Latin America.
After some months of resistance, I surrendered to the local trends and got myself a pair of tights. And it was liberating. So what if everyone can see every curve of my legs?
A colleague actually praised my slightly thunderous thighs, because she considered her own thin “chicken legs” unattractive.
It was in moments like this that I experienced how there are different standards of beauty in different parts of the world. Despite my initial negativity, over time this and other exchanges had a positive effect on me. They helped me rethink my internalized notions of what is acceptable to wear for what body type, and shed my own body consciousness.
Spending time in another culture often means reconsidering the attitudes you didn’t even know you had and learning to be wrong.
3. You learn another language.
Often, your cross-cultural experience will involve learning another language. This can be tiring and frustrating, adding another layer of stress on top of all the other acclimatization challenges you’re already facing.
But as you gain fluency and your brain begins to shift more seamlessly between two or more languages, you may experience a new part of yourself being unlocked. Another language is a whole other way of thinking.
Even Spanish, which is one of the easiest languages for native English-speakers to learn. I was quite fortunate in that my skills were already pretty solid by the time I moved to South America, but there was a huge difference between knowing another language and living in another language.
Living abroad meant that over time, my thought patterns shifted. Where I used to be quite frank in the way I express myself, I learned to begin my response not with the answer but with a tangentially related point or story. I still do it – I can now be quite circular in answering questions, even in English. I’m far more diplomatic than I used to be.
At the same time, I’m also more animated in my speech these days and I suspect that Latinx emotiveness has rubbed off on me a little.
Living in another language involves thinking in new ways and that impacts the way you interact with others and with the world around you. It involves, in many respects, being a different you.
4. Your personal identity is transformed.
When you’ve expanded your comfort zone, when you get used to being wrong, when you’ve lived in another language — it’s safe to say you’re a different person. You’re still you – but you’re not the same person who stepped on a plane the first time.
As a Malaysian-born, ethnically Chinese woman raised by fairly Western parents in Australia, my cultural background has always been a little complex. Where I’m from, being Asian-Australian is no big deal, but in South America I was often the only “oriental” person that anyone knew.
The experience of being a foreigner made me feel simultaneously more and less Australian. When I was overseas, cultural differences that irked me – such as North American expectations of punctuality, South American formalities in most gatherings, and Indonesian phones going off and being answered in the middle of meetings – made me feel more Australian.
But when I came home, things about my own culture repelled me – affluence, money concerns that seemed to pale next to poverty in the developing world, shallow conversations overheard on public transport. These elements of reverse culture shock often made me feel unAustralian (which is, ironically, a very Australian term).
It didn’t help that an international twang had crept into my accent. That and the fact that here in Australia, among my friends and family and I’m now “the one who went to South America.”
And as much as travel changes the way you see and express yourself, it can also change the way other people see you.
5. You can better empathize with minorities.
At its most basic level, the experience of being a foreigner is an experience of being a minority. And if you’ve never been a minority, this can be humbling and eye-opening.
When you’re constantly having to deal with visa issues, you come to understand the value of citizenship. When you’re getting ripped off at the markets because you’re clearly “not from round these parts,” you start to get a sense of what discrimination might feel like.
For me, living in developing countries also brought me into contact with poverty in a personal way – I had friends who couldn’t afford things I took for granted, like money to pay for new clothes or a bus trip to see family in another province.
The poor aren’t a faceless, needy mass. They aren’t all happily and innocently poor, but they aren’t all miserable either. Living amongst them dispelled all of those stereotypes and gave me faces to which I could match my own advocacy on poverty alleviation and international development.
I also had friends who, in relative terms, were very well-off and going on frequent holidays, consuming international (read: American) products, learning English, and often speaking it quite well. I experienced that disparity between rich and poor, just within my friendship group. Being a foreigner gave me that access. Back home — except in the course of doing certain community work — my friendship circles tended to be with people from a largely similar educational and socio-economic background.
Being in the minority shows you what it means for the system not to be made for you.
You start to appreciate the challenges faced by the marginalized, whether they be newcomers to your own country or other minorities within your home society.
6. You are connected to humanity beyond your native cultural context.
I’m not saying I’ve transcended prejudice.
All I’m saying is that I’m now more aware of my biases; the lenses through which I see the world. I’m not saying I’m wiser than those who have not traveled as widely as I have – nor am I more foolish than those who have spent more time abroad, or lived in more countries than I have.
Let’s get this straight: travel in and of itself does not make you a better person – I don’t think it even makes you a good person. It does, however, force you to reexamine what you believe and how you live. Or at least it should if you’re engaged in more than tourism.
With all the crazy, sad, awful, tragic things happening in every place on this planet, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. It can be easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do, so why bother trying.
It’s times like these that we need a stronger sense of our global citizenship.
The world is not against us, but rather we are a part of the world. Travel enables us to understand more deeply and broadly the world and our place in it, which is both bigger and smaller than we think. Each of us is just one of seven billion equally precious human beings – but each of us is also an individual who can make a real difference.
The more we see of the world, the more we experience the power of dialogue and the reality of interdependence. “Humanity” becomes more than just an abstract concept — this knowledge that there are seven billion other people on this planet, most of whom don’t think like us. We have names and examples to describe a diversity that was previously only conceptual. We have experiences to show how we still managed to bridge these differences and connect.
Consider Wanderful’s own values: sisterhood, integrity, compassion, community, collaboration, innovation, honesty, and intersectionality. Doesn’t our world need more of this?
Then we need to start sharing the learnings from our travels, not just here on Wanderful, and not just in our expat or traveler circles.
We need to encourage everybody, everywhere, to claim their global citizenship.
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