Hpa-an, Myanmar / Jodi Ettenberg

How travel helps us keep life in perspective.

On culture shock, reverse culture shock & remembering what matters most

Every year when I return to North America from months of living elsewhere, strangers and friends ask me the same question: “So, where are you based now?” It’s a fair question. I was a corporate lawyer for years, and now I eat my way around the world, writing about how food connects people from far-flung places. In spending winters abroad (usually in Southeast Asia) and summers in North America for conferences, family time and assignments, I confuse people with my lack of normal routine. “What do you mean you have no base?” is the usual reply. “But, how do you keep perspective with no home? And where’s all your STUFF?”

The stuff question is an easy one: I sold most of it when I left New York, and what I did keep I have in boxes in my hometown of Montreal. The perspective question is a little more complicated. For this stage of my life, travel is what keeps my life in perspective. It gives me a constant, a big sandbox to play in where I can discover or learn as much as I can. It’s there for as long as I decide to live my life in this way. And though I build different sandcastles each year, the faint outlines that I’ve drawn around my annual continental back-and-forth give me a sense of stability that seems to surprise.

Earlier in my travels, I spent close to 7 weeks in Myanmar. It was in January of 2010, and the country was far less open than it is today. (The current civil war and sectarian violence was ongoing, however, just more quietly.) Though I wanted to see as much of Myanmar as the government would allow, I spent a full week in a tiny town called Hpa-An. Staying in Kayin State for that long wasn’t in my plans, but something happened my first night in town that changed the connection I felt to this tiny village.

That something was this:


I was exhausted when I arrived, coming off of a ridiculous gauntlet of a freezing cold night bus, to boiling hot day bus, to tuk-tuk — with bonus chickens. I checked into one of two places in town licensed to house foreigners and went to sleep at dusk, depleted.

I woke up at 4am to faint screams and panicked scurrying in the attic, the Rakhine boys who worked at the hotel trying to stuff their belongings into a bag. Disoriented, my mind still cobwebbed from sleep, it didn’t register that the air was thick with smoke. I tumbled out of bed and stumbled down the three flights of stairs and into the street. Several buildings were on fire. Given that much of the town was made of wood and that it had no fire station, people assumed the worst.

Next door to the hotel was a doctor’s clinic and women ferried in and out carrying supplies to waiting trucks. They grabbed the most expensive equipment they could find. A microscope, medication, laboratory equipment. They hoped to save what they could. One longyi-clad woman stopped to catch her breath. “This is all,” she blurted out, roughly gesturing to the chaos behind her.

The hotel owner explained: no insurance, no savings. If her clinic went down, so did everything she had.

Manhattanhenge, 2011 / JODI ETTENBERG

One of my closest friends returned from a long-term contract in Ghana only to find he wasn’t empathetic to his friends’ complaints about the weather or traffic. He was frustrated by their fixation on the small things and how they were, in his eyes, blown out of proportion. He lived through life and death in Kumasi and he found his friends casually discarding his lessons learned.

They called him irritable and he called them snobby. He told them that they lacked perspective. His friends did have perspective; it just wasn’t along the lines of what he was prepared to digest. It was embodied differently, just as their lives were embodied differently. Less stark, less earnest, but nonetheless present. I gently suggested that he lacked some perspective too; in straddling the world between Africa and the States, he could no longer relate to either. He needed some time to re-adjust.

With any long-haul movement — be it sequentially, as a life choice, or during a shorter trip — constant recalibration is a necessity. I no longer suffer from culture shock in one direction, but in reverse too. Like my friend who returned from Ghana, I am familiar with the frustration of knowing that my mental state doesn’t jive whatsoever with those around me. I remember looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge after weeks in riot-clogged Bangkok and thinking “I’m over this inability to function and fit in. Where’s the sticky rice?” As I slowly seeped back into the world I used to know, those ragged edges smoothed and the conversations became easier. I learned to enjoy the Brooklyn Bridge again.

But I still missed the sticky rice.

How can one not miss this? Sticky rice & eggplant dip in Laos. / JODI ETTENBERG

These are the stories I tell when people ask me about perspective. Surely it’s better to expose ourselves to more than what we know now? I don’t believe that we should grit our teeth and bear our minds as they whir through the chaos of culture shock. Instead, a heightened state of awareness has percolated under the surface, keeping me grateful for the life I’ve built and the things I’ve learned, and for the ability to process all of the information that comes at me, fast and furious, in a new place.

There is something to be said about travel crystallizing our perceptions, honing suspiciously naïve sentiments into firm sets of belief. In the last five years of travel, the most constant push to better myself has come from that giant rolodex of stored information, a database to run through and compare against in a new place.

Even within the context of culture shock, that awareness can help keep life in perspective. And if you concentrate enough, it can help mold you into the person you strive to be. The chasms that exists between what people expect of you, what you see, and who you become is something to hold on to, to turn over in your mind and then return to once you’ve adjusted once again.

Which brings me back to Myanmar.

A smoky dawn in Hpa-An, Myanmar / JODI ETTENBERG

During that sleepless night as the fire spread through Hpa-An, the few foreigners in town ran out to help. Of course we did! We offered to carry water, to help evacuate, to carry goods from store to store. And as I ran around I told myself over and over to remember this moment for when I got home.

Why? Because I knew that in going home I would get caught up in the resentment of feeling like I didn’t belong. I knew there would be moments where I would fail to see the forest through the trees. I wanted to remind myself of the invaluable perspective I gained by being present in Hpa-An, that floating-above feeling of seeing one life as part of a wider tapestry.

When things went wrong subsequently as they do, I remembered Hpa-An. Hpa-An and all of those other hairline moments, tiptoeing the tightrope between life and loss, many of which I’ve never written about. It’s not a matter of sanctimony. (Believe me, I can throw a glorious temper tantrum like the best of them.) But in keeping these moments close, in trying to cross-reference where I am with where I’ve been and the lessons I’ve learned, I keep my own perspective intact. I remind myself of what really matters in life.

This isn’t why I travel, but it is important; it keeps me calibrated. Whatever aggregate frustration or negativity I’ve built up, even when things feel like they’ve hit rock bottom, it could always be worse.

This is one of the many gifts that travel gives us. We always say “try to put yourself in their shoes to understand.” But when your travels necessitate that you do so — be it for a moment, or a week or a sleepless night in a tiny river town — the comparison solidifies into something you can come back to, time and time again.