The most important things I learned as a 23-year old travelling for the first time.
You would think that I, as a white kid raised in the Seattle suburbs now with a degree from a 4-year university, would have been well-versed in the many cultures of the world. But nothing could be further from the truth. My family didn’t vacation much. Being the oldest of 4 boys, travel was never really an option. It was just too pricey. Though during my college years, I did get to travel throughout the States quite a bit. Week long trips and business competitions in Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Diego, and other cities throughout the states always seemed to widen my worldview bit by bit. But after graduation, I had set a goal for myself. I was going to travel to China within the next year. Admittedly, yes, I was going to visit a girl. Who could blame me? I was going all in to make this relationship work. Aside from the romances and excitement of travelling with someone you love, seeing the face of a new culture for the first time as a 23-year old simply blew my mind.
It was November of 2015, and I was travelling internationally for the first time. I was to spend 7 days in Wuhan, China and an additional 4 days in and around Bangkok, Thailand. With a little more than 2 full weeks of travelling between my hometown of Boise to Los Angeles and my trans-pacific destinations I thought I was prepared for it all. I knew I would come back a different person, but not in the ways it actually turned out.
I learned to really challenge even the simplest things of American culture.
From toilets to etiquette, transportation to marketing. Being immersed in a place where everything is different and designed with a different audience is fascinating. There were so many times where I would be sitting on a bus, see something and say “Oh! That makes so much sense! Why don’t we do that in America?” For example, workers built pipelines and fiber underneath sidewalks made of square panels so you could maintain or install new cables without tearing up the ground. It’s so much cheaper! Interestingly these moments often occurred in infrastructural discoveries. Then there were cultural differences. The way you toast or greet somebody to show respect. How you hand over money or objects with two hands instead of one. Or (my least favorite personally) drinking beverages warm instead of iced. These were little things I had heard of but never really seen in reality. I was definitely a total noob.
Americans love to Americanize other cultures at home and abroad.
There are plenty of things that are obviously westernized in China and Thailand. Things you would expect, such as cars, tech, music and entertainment, or architecture. Innovations coming from the Western world. That’s totally ok. I am all for the global market. But in the United States, the presence of our diversity seems to decay over time. I realized, Americans don’t really like to appreciate other cultures in our own country. As the melting pot of the world, I would think our diversity would create this beautiful clash of worlds combining, but we generally seem to want immigrants assimilate to what we think is an ideal description of the average American. We create fake cultures and water down the true beauty of the world. We even try to celebrate and give value to others with our fascinations of international experiences such as local Chinatowns (which are really just a facade designed by Chinese immigrants to make Americans like Chinese-American culture, thus avoiding massive amounts of racism. Really. Look it up.) international holidays, and districts. But in the end, we are so obsessed with American power, whiteness, influence, whatever you want to call it, that we as a culture have really just become a luke-warm mush of diversity. It makes me kind of sad. Yet, it does continue to provide value to the actual peoples and preserved pockets of the world representing an ancient and long history of traditions and value. But perhaps that with the continuing globalization of the world, who knows what kind of beauty will spring up from this hundreds of years from now?
Language is the most fascinating art form I have ever experienced.
If you like learning about languages you will be well aware that there are many words that do not exist in the English language. Words that express combinations of feelings or occurrences in nature that we simply don’t have a word for. You will also know that English is an extremely complex language. But since returning to the United States, I have found a brand new appreciation for language. I mean, think of how crazy it is that we all live similar lives day to day but communicate and process them completely differently because of our native tongue. I met an incrediby talented woman in China who spoke English remarkably well and she often described her experiences with references to flavor. Yes, actual tastes and words we would use to describe food, she would discribe people and circumstances. This isn’t unheard of. We often say people are bitter or that somebody may have a spicy appearance. But for her as a local to describe her world so artfully in another language was fascinating to me. If you’re really into the history and diversity of language, I highly recommend listening to Radiotopia’s The Allusionist. It’s great!
International travel is not just fun, it’s very important.
As millions before me have told their friends, you just have to get out there and see the world. I mean, I can’t even really say that to people. I still have only seen the tiniest snippet of what’s out there. But ultimately, meeting new people, getting out of your comfort zone, and trying something new will always grow you. There is just something about sharing a smile with a stranger, or ending up in an endless game of charades when all you want is directions to the nearest liquor store. Your first upset stomach from an exotic meal, not sleeping from jetlag, and finally coming back home feeling so full and ready to take on the world. Travel brings a level of learning, growth, and peace that nothing else can ever come close to. It is like falling in love. But the world will never dump you. It’s just waiting patiently.
In the end, we are all just seeking to better the lives of those around us.
Coming from a family with classic American grandparents, far right philosophy is never far off. I can’t tell you have many times I heard to stay away from commie bastards and to carry a weapon in Bangkok because of all the drag queens. Though being there completely convinced me of the ridiculousness of those claims, I learned that no matter your ideology, religion, skill, or trade, we are all out there, day after day, doing what we can to support each other. We love those close to us, smile with friends, play games, and work hard. There is not one single person out there that can say “I have figured it out.” We all struggle. It was incredibly beautiful to have a conversation with somebody on the other side of the world just to learn they struggle with the same question about life I think about every day.
I often wonder if I will ever go back. I don’t know. I may. I may not. I experienced so much in such a short time. I am more grateful than ever, more driven, and more encouraged to learn. But I am also happy with where I am. America is a beautiful country with an incredible amount of wonders to still experience. And I like it here. I like my job, creating campaigns for incredible brands. My apartment, warm and cozy as I watch the snow fall onto the city streets out my bedroom window. I love Boise. But I am grateful that I have stirred a new love in my heart. I can only hope to keep exploring. Where do you want to go next?
And for the few attentive and curious readers, no, things didn’t work out between us. But she is still an incredible part of my life and will continue to be so.