Everywhere is the same, remember that

“Everywhere is the same. If you remember one thing from your travels remember that.” — The drunken expat and occasional Buddha. After almost seven months of traveling in Ghana, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, this random quote from the very beginning of my journey hit me. Especially after everything that has been going on back in America and all over the world, it seemed like the right time to talk about this.

On one of my first nights in Ghana, I went to a bar with my boss to celebrate the upcoming four months of working together. While chatting and drinking, another American expat interjects upon overhearing our conversation, so we ask him to join us. Soon the drunken expat and I start talking about traveling and my culture shock upon arriving in Ghana. Like most people when asked about Africa, I pictured tribes and starving children because that’s what we see in the media — I mean, it was my first time out of the US (besides Canada). Now, I knew before arriving in Accra that it was nothing like that, but I was still unprepared for what to expect (more on that later). In between his random notes on prostitutes, voluptuous women, and camping in a canoe, he mentioned that everywhere is the same, but at the time, I didn’t truly understand what he meant.

I spent just about four months in Accra, Ghana, and it was here that I experienced the worst culture shock of my journey. Looking back on it now, it was a combination of the difference in culture and skin tone as well as being treated like you were special just because you were not Ghanaian or black. I found myself being frustrated mostly with the people — the constant honking, always trying to grab you or your friends to get your attention, and the lack of things that I would consider basic necessities (decent Wi-Fi, paved roads, closed gutters, bug/dust free houses, and plentiful coffee shops). After speaking with expats who shared the same sentiment, it made me realize how much I take for granted back home. Only after I started meeting other creative Ghanaians like me who were working as photographers, graphic designers, developers, or community changemakers did I start to realize that although Ghana was different in a lot of ways (culture, people, and experiences, etc.), we were still the same. I would see families eating together, sharing a meal or mothers interacting with the child wrapped to their back. Looking back on it now, I realized that I was going through the four stages of culture shock. After some reflection, I started thinking about what I enjoyed about Ghana, such as the rich culture, warm and welcoming people, the way Muslims and Christians not only coexisted but honored each other’s religious celebrations. When December arrived, I was finally nearing the acceptance stage, but I never quite achieved it before I left for Thailand.

Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, my stress and frustration from culture shock were replaced by excitement because for the past five months, I had been researching about Chiang Mai non-stop. Even though Chiang Mai was only one fifth of my journey, this was the place I was most excited to visit — a place full of coffee shops, digital nomads, coworking spaces, scooters, lots of things to do, everything in walking distance, and rich cultures. I was worried about setting my expectations too high, but Chiang Mai surpassed my expectations. When we first decided to travel around Southeast Asia, we knew that we wanted to take it slow and really try to understand the culture, history, and people of each place we visited. Unlike many others along our journey who viewed the culture/people as a backdrop to their own entertainment, for us, this was not just a vacation. In doing so, we really got to understand each place that we visited as well as make friends all over the world. Although I didn’t experience as much culture shock as I did in Ghana, there were still things that I had to get used to. For example, in Thailand, the people almost worship their king, who had recently passed away. There were many laws in place such as not stepping on a coin because it has the king’s face imprinted on it, or being required to stand and “pledge” to the king in the movie theater before a movie. To me, this seemed like forced worship, and from an American perspective, I didn’t understand it. In Vietnam, since it was a supposed socialist/communist country, everywhere you looked, there would be communist flags with the hammer and sickle in addition to communist propaganda, especially outside of schools. As an American, it was hard to set to the side my ingrained predisposition against communism. Also, in Malaysia, where a majority of the population was Muslim, I had my first experience of visiting a mosque and seeing Muslim people praying. I realized that even though America is a melting pot, you don’t actually see the other cultures and people. You tend to not see the minority, only the majority.

After seven long months of traveling, making new friends, learning about history and culture of all these places, it hit me that everywhere is the same despite the obvious differences. It’s interesting to notice within yourself that you have a predisposition to judge or be highly aware of differences in skin tone, religion, or culture. I’m not sure, but I wonder if that comes from being American and what we see in the media. Yeah, we are a melting pot, but this melting seems to remove or appropriate other cultures and substitutes it for the “American” culture. We don’t realize how many other different types of people, religions, cultures, races, and genders there are in America. We tend to limit ourselves to only think about ourselves and our family. When we don’t get exposure to all the diverse people/cultures in America, they start to feel like outsiders that can’t be trusted and this goes both ways. People learn to not trust one another, and it’s hard to heal those wounds after they have been created. This is definitely not only an American problem as the rest of the world is struggling with these issues as well i.e. Brexit, France’s upcoming elections, and other racial/ethnic tensions all over the world.

“Everywhere is the same. If you remember one thing from your travels remember that.” With his quote, the drunken expat was not saying that every location is the same, but that all people are the same, in a very broad sense. In my seven months after my chat with him and getting introduced so many different countries, religions, cultures, and people I finally was able to understand what that quote meant, at least to me. Even though everyone is different and unique, everyone everywhere is the same in that they are all humans trying to live their lives, provide for their family, and be happy just like you.