Get out there. Forget what it means to be self-conscious or self-righteous and own the idea of humility. That’s the wild heart of traveling — we are but human beings wondering about and wandering on this hallowed ground, this precious gift of Earth.
I think sometimes people feel uncomfortable with the idea of travel because you must, first of all, have the means and the plans to travel. I’m of the mind that if you have even a bit extra of funds, spend it on trekking around the world. You will never be the same again, and you’re investing in thousands of new perspectives. It’s one thing to read about a different point of view on the news or hear it from your friend heralding from another culture. It’s another to actually experience another side of the zeitgeist we partake in.
I remember ordering dinner one evening in French, a fourth language for me if that, and feeling intensely uncomfortable. Many of the encounters locals have with people of Asian descent were the mass buses of tourists from various East Asian countries. Locals openly stared at my family since we looked a certain way but spoke English fluently. They talked about us behind menus and smirked. However, this moment flitted away once my brother and I conversed with the manager in French. She smiled broadly, patted us on the shoulders, and put up with our butchered, scuffled attempts at a very beautiful language. “Oui, c’est bonne,” She grinned. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” By all means, I am only really fluent in Mandarin other than English. I took four years in Spanish, and the practice lay dormant for many years before being unearthed in Nashville and now San Antonio with students (not to mention I was supported by phenomenal bilingual staff and, yes, tech like Duolingo and Google). Never has language learning been for naught. Your eyes are opened, you learn to listen, you gain another soul.
Should you find yourself stuck in the confines of only a single country, my answer is still to keep traveling. Many of us know the severe conflicts and changes between one region of the United States and another. North, south, east, west. The best way to really learn to empathize with someone is to open your ears, your mind, and your heart. Evelyn from the Internets recently released spoke on our current obsession with call-out culture. We want to drag people for sharing ignorant opinions or perpetrating actions we find heinous. And I get it. I’m definitely a person engaged in that conversation. I’ve spent countless days, months, and years expending resources to “educate” others on the nuances of current trends surrounding race and culture in the U.S. Traveling hasn’t dulled that part of me in the least, but it has opened my eyes to other privileges sometimes neglected. Like…China is currently an economic superpower and identifying as Chinese possesses a certain amount of privilege in Asia or abroad. Being Chinese-American is to, in some ways, identify as two colonizing agents who hate each other. You are two warring entities inside one soul. However, both are still privileged identities. Proud identities. Identities often unwilling to listen or allow for other voices.
Traveling is a privilege but a redeemable one. Support local businesses. Love on local parks and donate to restoration of worthy local causes. Be curious and acknowledge if you feel a little foolish. Maybe put the smart devices down and take some mental images. Give others a chance.
When I was walking out of Penn Station after taking the 1 line downtown, I couldn’t help but count the number of languages I heart while passing through. Vietnamese, Cantonese, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Arabic…I lost count in about 4 blocks. To be a global citizen these days is not just to pass through, but to really and truly hear.
Yesterday, a gentleman on the tram explained to us about his vehement support for Catalonia being independent. He spoke candidly with a smile, but he was still firm. He drew connections to Taiwan and China, which, could have been a sticky conversation, but all parties involved in the conversation were eager to listen instead of to judge. A few weeks ago, I spoke with another friend from Madrid about the same issue who felt a bit differently. None of these turned into arguments but sustained a heartbeat of healthy discussion. Maybe, in many ways, we’ve lost the heart of dialogue and debate.
Another friend and I, while roaming Paris, talked extensively about what it means to diversify views about each other and culture at large. She said, oftentimes, that we oversimplify views held in other countries, and many others do the same for us. In the current global landscape, for example, many people erroneously believe there is agreement over the current administration’s policies. Another point she brought up was the idea that we can insulate ourselves with news that we agree with on all fronts of social media. We are engaging in this self-centric news culture where the only opinions we value are the ones we hold to be true.
The solution I see to this maze of our own making is to let others in. Listen to diverse opinions – you don’t have to be friends with people, but do listen. Make sure they have a chance to listen to you too. Traveling is a way to converse without having to say a word – you can merely observe and come away with more than you ever can in a conversation.
I leave you with an image in a metaphor. I think it’s a bit like L’Oasis D’Aboukir – the living wall erected in Paris with a whole slew of vibrant greenery. The wall, though it stands much like other buildings, is all at once alive and moving. It changes with the seasons but retains its base form. Perhaps we need to learn to be a bit like that. Plant the seeds of knowledge, of wondering, of questioning. Let yourself blossom, be seen if you like, and stand firm if you like. Know who you are but be open to the winds, the rains, the snow, the elements at large.
And by all means, do not be afraid.
Learn to grow.