Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Traveling and Coming Home

This morning I picked up a magazine called “Traveler” and started flipping through it. My sister had briefly mentioned it to me the day before, saying something about how she’d never really read it, but they happened to get it, and hey, it’s called “traveler,” so maybe I’d enjoy it?
Actually, it reminded me of everything that bothers me about being a “traveler.” The front cover had titles like this screaming at me:
“50 Ways to Look Good in Any Climate.”
“A World of Style: where to see it, shop it, live it.”
“Helsinki-lots of stylish stuff”
I also found it online, in case you’d like to know "How to get the most out of business class,” since apparently business class is not “posh” enough:
I’m sure that there are people who would find this type of magazine useful—and I don’t want to be too self-righteous here because if they have the time and money to enjoy themselves this way, I guess there’s nothing wrong with it—but it’s travel literature such as this that makes me squeamish. I hate the idea of traveling because it’s glamorous or sexy or something that will make me cool or interesting. I think most of the young people I know today who have gotten to study abroad or travel a lot would probably also find this type of travel writing to be practically useless and stuffed full of elitist, consumer-driven drivel, but still—we have our own obnoxious way of glamorizing travel that is equally problematic.
Maybe we’re not bragging about going to the most glamorous nightclubs or flying first class to whatever location is “in” right now, but bragging about self-denial and cross cultural experiences is equally (or maybe more) obnoxious because it has a troubling moral element to it. Here’s the deal: No one is sexier or cooler or, in this case, a better person, simply because they’ve been backpacking through Europe or they’ve climbed some totally wicked mountain in Asia, or they’ve bummed around in South America and couldn’t shower or eat peanut butter for entire months or whatever. In some cases, they’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be able to live in other cultures and they’ve become stronger, better people for it. Okay, great—I think living with people who are different than I am and learning from them is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean people who love living where they are or have not had the opportunity to travel do not have just as much to offer as those who are privileged enough to be able to do so. I am super lucky to have the opportunity to do what I am doing, and yes, I’m sure I’ll have fun doing it and come back with some potentially exciting tales of adventure, but please slap me in the face if I start sounding like an arrogant douchebag about it.
When I first got back from Russia I had a hard time talking to anyone about it without becoming annoyed at either that person’s lack of knowledge about what I was actually doing there or what Russia was actually like—as in, not just a frozen communist wasteland—or at how frequently I was referencing Russian culture or language or whatever. I had to remind myself that a lack of interest in Russianness or a misunderstanding of what it entailed did not make a person inherently bad or wrong. And, I had to sort of let myself tell people the stories that I needed to tell them while reigning in my disgust at some parts of American culture that I’d never noticed before. I had to realize that I am not more enlightened or somehow a better person than people who did not share my experiences abroad; I am just more privileged.
Although negotiating cultural and linguistic differences and trying to become part of a new community can be pretty tough, the hardest part of living somewhere else is oftentimes the homecoming. We let what we find out about our own country’s treatment of other countries and peoples influence our opinions of our fellow Americans who have not been exposed to what we have seen. This is going to be my struggle upon returning—if and when I do—from being “on the run.”

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