A harangue about travel and how we talk about it

heaven lake xinjiang

(Above, Heaven Lake in Xinjiang Province, China, taken by my friend Yang Fu Chun, also known as Benjamin)

This was just pasted on my Facebook (thanks Caitlin), entitled “Everyone Should Live in China at Least Once” by Andrea Xu.  Of course I had to read it, because I spent five years, on and off, living in China.  I was relieved that the author didn’t make it into one of those lists – you know, “Seven Reasons to live in China” or some such shit.  I hate all those reductionist articles – “The Five Best Whatever Ever” or “Seven ways to overcome whatever”.  As if people can’t or won’t read an article that’s not a list?  Pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Ugh.

But I digress.

I really wanted to write about travel, and how we talk about it.  Andrea Xu captures a lot of truisms in her piece –  like how both exhilarating and frustrating it can be to live in another country.  I also like how she ties what you can learn in China to what you can apply it to when you get back home.  I think too often Westerners travel with nothing more in mind than getting something out of it for themselves.  But I wish I could ask her why she would invite everyone there?

Here’s a question I struggle with:  Should stupid, ignorant, bigoted people travel to other countries?  Will they come back less stupid, ignorant, and bigoted?  Maybe.  I hope so.  Certainly I have encountered a number of this type while living overseas (and not only in China – in Saudi Arabia and Japan as well).  I think it’s possible to remain pretty myopic in a foreign place, especially if you’re with a group.

Maybe some people thought I was stupid, ignorant, or bigoted living overseas.  That’s entirely possible.  And I know I learned a lot.  But really, it’s not like I want to stop anyone from going anywhere.  I just hope they think about it long and hard before they go, and that they are as open as they can be while there.

I have a problem with the phrase “The World is your Oyster.”  It’s not your fucking oyster.  (I write about this in my book, actually.)  It’s a complex, sometimes terrifying, place.  It’s hard not to be changed in some way by a place, in either a good way or a bad way.  Moreover, YOU change a place by going there.  You affect the people you encounter, in either a good way or a bad way.  I know this isn’t rocket science, but I think some people forget this.

Jordan, a man I work with, says he often asks foreigners what they think of Americans overseas.  “Inevitably they say, ‘Entitled’,” Jordan tells me.

I asked my Spanish friend Monica what she thinks of Americans, and especially Americans overseas.  “Innocent,” she said.


I know that a college semester in Kenya changed my life, and I also know that at age 21 I most certainly was an idiot.  I was also traveling with a group.  But it changed me in so many ways, and to this day is vivid and important.  I wouldn’t want to deny any college student that experience.

(Although my alma mater Earlham College no longer sends students to Kenya.  Too dangerous.)

What can I really say here?  I want people to travel smart.  I want them to be careful.  I want them to be realistic, but joyful.  I want them to soak it all in, but at the same time to be as green as possible.  I want them to know, really know, people in the countries that they visit.  And I certainly don’t want them to come home as bruised and battered as I was when I came home from Saudi Arabia.  Tough place.

The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, “Don’t tell me how much you know.  Tell me how far you’ve traveled.”

Maybe he had something there.




2 thoughts on “A harangue about travel and how we talk about it

    • Ah yes, how true. That’s what I’ve found, anyway. Or maybe that’s just age settling in. I’ll give the prophet some credit, though. Maybe that’s what he really meant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s