Sunday, December 14, 2014

Round Robin: Does travel change you?

The week after my 10th birthday, my family moved to Singapore, about as far from Southeast Texas as it is possible to go without leaving the planet. I remember being excited about it. It was no great wrench, we'd only been in Texas for two years. Two years was our average for staying in a place. We had already lived in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and a couple of army bases in Texas, but Singapore was my family's first foreign venture. 

Coconut vendor Merida, Mexico

Since then, I have been to Malaysia, Brunei, Labuan and Sarawak, Thailand, Sri Lanka and France. I've spent a few days in Luxembourg and Belgium, a week in Hungary, a week in Mexico, ten days in Spain and a short weekend in London. So when I think of travel, It's not spending a week at a resort, working on your tan and drinking rum. I think of travel as spending significant time in a place not your own: getting used to the rhythms of another culture, finding new landmarks, learning to navigate when you can't read (or find) the street signs, and figuring out what in the market you can cook.

Laughing Sal, Musee Mecanique, San Francisco
You don't have to go far for the experience. Stay with friends for the summer. Move to a new town. If your town is big enough, move to a different neighborhood. All your landmarks will change. But foreign travel is particularly useful for one thing: perspective.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving” 
– Terry Pratchett

I don't think anyone really understands where they are from until they leave. It's like stepping back from a picture, to better see the whole. Things that you never noticed will jump out at you, and issues you thought important will fade to insignificance. When you are the only person in the room with your cultural background, you suddenly realize that what you have always thought of as normal, isn't. I remember trying to explain: nerds, gingerbread houses, why Americans don't kiss each other hello (I don't know why - we just don't), and garage sales. 

Cockerel - Key West
Of course, you will learn about whatever culture you visit, but you will always see it through the lens of your own. You won't be able to help it. And you will learn how your culture is seen by outsiders. This can be enlightening, flattering, or really uncomfortable. (Sometimes all three at once.) But as long as you remain open, you will gain from the experience. 

Dancer, San Jose Tamale Festival
To read what other people are saying on this topic, check out their blogs.