Tuesday, April 30, 2013

You Travel Abroad, You May Notice These 5 Things

There are no doubt many who have traveled far, far more than I have (See: This Guy). But compared to your average American, I've been around the block a few times and counting. While I travel, I try hard not to be some mindless American tourist scumbag who does the touristy things in places, snaps a few photos, and leaves. I try to be a worldly traveler; I try to experience places on their terms and in their spirit; I try to have experiences; and I try to philosophize on those experiences when I'm done. That's really what this blog is all about, and I hope to be of some help enlightening others on this subject, rather than just writing for my own sake.

What you should picture as you're reading this: Me, thinking deeply over some cured meat, cheese, and bread. 
On that note, I've compiled a short list of observations, things I've learned from my stints living and working abroad. They are vast generalizations, and there will always be exceptions, and hell, I may be dead wrong about some of them, and if you as a reader object, I'm not afraid to admit where I'm wrong. But travel has been more than a hobby for me; it's a passion, a vocation, not a passing phase that someday I'll "grow out of". I've spent a fair amount of my life doing it, reading about it, and thinking about it. And here are five things I've learned along the way:


1. People don't care so much about what country they live in; they care more about what standard they can live at.


For some this may seem obvious, but many sheltered Americans could probably learn from having it pointed out. America is a rich, developed country (well, actually one in four Americans lives in poverty, but we won't go into that at length at the moment). For most of its history, it has been renown for presenting plenty of economic opportunity and continual strong economic growth. Americans born and raised here have rarely ever had to consider traveling abroad to find work (they may move around to take jobs within the US, but not abroad); instead, people from other countries often want to come to the US for work, even if it's shitwork by middle-class American standards, it may seem like heaven compared to how they used to live. 

In other western countries, such as Canada and the UK, it's almost strange not to seek work overseas at some point in life or to never work abroad. The reason for this is that the economic opportunity abroad is often better than prospects back home. I've met plenty of British and Canadians who have settled permanently abroad, mostly in East Asia, because there they can live at a higher standard, have a better apartment, more disposable income, and more financial security than back home. This has rarely been the case for many Americans, and if you meet one living abroad, particularly in East Asia, they will probably have a really good job, like head of the company, if they plan to be there permanently. But if they want a really good job that is permanent, a big house, nice car, etc., they have a better chance of getting that in the US. So why work abroad? 

Now, thanks to the Great Recession that the United States now finds itself in, this has changed to some degree. A lot more young Americans, like their British and Canadian counterparts, are seeking work abroad, mostly in China and South Korea, where there is opportunity. I was one of these myself, and I'll admit it can be hard to leave once you're settled in with a job, your own apartment, and a steady income. But they are still a small percentage compared to other western countries who send many of their young abroad. Most Americans, even now, still wouldn't consider working abroad if they couldn't find adequate work back home. They'd be more likely to take a menial job in a service position, or move around within the US, before they sought work abroad. Or at least this is my observation. 

It can't go unmentioned that economic migration usually does go the other way: most people in developing countries strongly desire to move to developed countries for even the lowest of jobs there. I can't tell you how many times I had a Chinese person in China tell me how they couldn't believe that I would leave the US for China, and that they would give anything to emigrate from China to America (even the richest Chinese would say this type of thing). Even a lot of Europeans are happy to move to the US if it means a better job, more money, and a bigger house. The exchange rarely goes the other way around (Americans settling permanently in Europe, that is), though it does happen at times.

Anyway, all this goes to affirm my point. People will move to where they can live the best, across borders, oceans, or halfway around the globe, and even if it means going from a developed country to a developing one. One's personal living standard often matters more to them than culture or nationality. 

2. Americans don't travel. Except to Europe.


While traveling in East Asia, there are plenty of times when I've rolled into a hostel, introduced myself around in the common room where people were chilling and drinking beers, and slowly realized that I was the only American there. It was a common occurence.

I've read other travel writers who have had this same experience and made this same point, and there are a number of theories as to why it is the case. I believe the answer is really a combination of several things. For one, Americans don't tend to have the "gap year" experience so ingrained in their culture. People do it, like Peace Corps and other programs, and probably now more than ever as good jobs have become scarcer and people are prolonging adolescence through the end of their twenties. But it is not as ubiquitous as it is in other developed countries, like Australia, where it seems like everyone goes on a world trip when they turn 20. The other obvious reason, and this is connected to the first, is that most American college graduates have tons of debt when they get out of school. They want to quickly get into the labor market to start paying it back. Though I think many could still easily use some of their allotted forbearance (as I did, though I don't have the same lenders as all people) and take at least a year to travel around. Nonetheless, it's another mental obstacle to getting abroad.

But the biggest reason to me is not financial. Instead, it's an aspect of the national American psyche: America is a very self-centered country. That's not a judgment, just an observation. Americans believe all the best TV, cinema, music, pop culture in general, comes from right here, within its borders. This is what we export around the world, and the rest of the world aspires to be like us. Ask a non-American a question about the USA, its history or geography for example, and chances are good they'll know, because they've seen countless movies from the US, know our pop stars, music, and TV, and have implicitly been educated about the US times over. Ask an American what the capital of Indonesia is (...You're asking yourself what it is right now, and probably didn't know that it is Jakarta), and they won't know. Why? Because they've never watched a TV show from Indonesia or heard an Indonesian pop song, never felt that an important new discovery or piece of technology came from there, or believed a highly relevant political event that concerns them occurred there. Basically, they've never had to know, they've never had reason to learn. The point is that Americans think they're at the center of it all. Most people around the world would kill to move to the US. So why should Americans leave their country? It's the biggest, the richest, and the best, and it's where everything's happening, right?

There is one place that captures Americans' attention, where they believe is relevant: Europe (and maybe Japan, too), two places you'll find many Americans want to visit, be it for backpacking, studying abroad, or teaching English as a foreign language. These places have relevant cultural contributions in the eyes of Americans, like movie stars and bands from the UK, and video games and technology from Japan. And perhaps it goes without saying, but there's also the aspect of developed vs. developing country to this. People from developed countries are rarely interested in developing ones, and you can't blame them, as I touched on during the first point. It just doesn't occur to many Americans that there may be interesting and important things abroad, outside of Europe. They're pretty convinced that it's all right here inside the borders of the good ole US of A.

Footnote: Yes, many Americans do travel to Latin America, too, as many learn Spanish in school and it's much closer in proximity and easier to visit, than say, Australia. But the truth remains: Americans just aren't that curious about getting abroad compared to some. It's a cultural thing, and it stems from believing we're at the center of it all.

3. The greatest travel virtue is magnanimity.


The thought of travel for most people is very inviting. It means escape, relaxation, novelty, and fun. But unless you have the resources to travel at the highest luxury, in reality it often turns out to be none of those things. It's hard, stressful, uncomfortable, awkward, and even at times dangerous. To have an interesting and rewarding international trip for a decent price usually requires diligent research and planning, in other words, it requires a lot of work. But the real key to having a good trip is attitude.

If you require comfort and security at all times, if you're unhappy getting out of your zone of familiarity, if you can't handle it when little things don't go your way, and let those things ruin your time, then travel is obviously not for you. Nothing goes completely right on a trip, ever. You sometimes have to make changes and deal with adversity on the fly. This adversity is usually quite small, and usually entails nothing more than waiting for long periods of time, not having access to hot water, not liking the only food that is available to eat, or other slight luxuries that must be sacrificed when traveling long distances. Nonetheless, a few of these slight inconveniences added together can be enough to ruin a trip for many westerners. And that's a darn shame.

The truth is many of these inconveniences can even be avoided with careful planning, such as having extra money for things you didn't budget for or having a contingency plan for what to do when things don't go as planned. But your greatest asset is still your attitude. Be flexible when things don't turn out as you planned. Be magnanimous if you have to deal with slight adversities. Realize you're not the only person on the globe, and that sometimes your needs may not be met immediately. Making this realization and living with this attitude will help legions along the road less traveled. But it will prove excellent help on the road of life, as well.

A great international travel experience can be the stuff that daydreams are made of. But that experience will come at a price, so make sure you have the outlook to get there. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not."  

4. Tourism has sadly wrecked many things it sought to honor.


This may be the least poignant of things I've learned, as it's commonly accepted that tourism has bad connotations and 'tourist' has become a bad word. But I'm still in awe of the way some communities and even nations have been so changed by the influx of tourism. It frankly boggles my mind.

Let's take two obvious examples: the city of Paris and the nation of Thailand. In each, tourism is a vital part of the local economy. They each attract millions upon millions of visitors each year. This has had a significant effect on the culture of each destination, where if you're looking for something that is authentically Thai or Parisian, it can be hard to find. Many aspects of culture and custom, like museums, store fronts, cuisine, transportation services, parades, shows, fashion, are all in place to accommodate the immense load of tourists. This influx brings money to local business and economies depend on it (Hell, the US economy depends on tourism and gets the 2nd most visitors annually after France), but it washes away that which is truly a local specialty and is authentic to the culture. Looking for a unique visit to Paris or Thailand, meeting with locals and doing what the locals do? Sadly you're just one of millions of tourist-visitors to these places, so go wait in line with the rest of them for your taste of what is prepared not at all just for you.

I feel I'm opening a can of philosophical worms with this opinion, as it raises questions of why we even visit foreign places in the first place and why we spend so much money doing it. Are most people even actually looking for something authentic, different, or culturally enlightening? What joy does trying to appreciate a famous painting in a museum even bring? Or are tourists just looking for a good time, something they enjoy, and something that they can easily believe is local culture, but don't really care whether it is or not so long as it fits their preconceived ideas of the place. And so things get changed. Local businesses make money by tailoring things to how guests want it. Most tourists don't seek authenticity, they're just seeking a good time as they desire it (and thus 'tourist' has become a dirty word).

Again, I think I've only scratched the surface of the greater discussion here on why people do travel and what we're actually in search of. As a sort of culture war among international travelers, there is now a debate about the favoring of being a "traveler" (an open-minded, backpacker type) as opposed to being a "tourist" (an insensitive, thoughtless person who is swayed by commercialized destinations in poor taste). More on all this later. But for now, just recognize the sad truth that tourists change their destinations in ways they may not even realize. 

5. Many lifelong ex-pats are running from something back home.


I've deliberately saved this one for last as I've been somewhat dreading writing it. But in my observation, it is the truth.

Everyone is different, and there are certainly some perfectly healthy people living abroad, but it seems to be that most lifelong ex-pats are trying to escape an unwanted situation back home. This may also not seem so surprising; who else would want to seek out a new life with the assumption that things will be better far away in a new culture than someone unhappy with their immediate surroundings?

Many are trying to escape a lack of economic opportunity, as we touched on earlier, but many are also attempting to hide from intimate, personal problems. Perhaps it's parents they resent, or a family situation they can't handle, or a failed marriage or relationship, or just the simple fact that they were losers in their hometown and abroad they're finally somebody (we often called this the "white guy in China" syndrome when I lived there). The point is, I've seen it many times over and it's all too common in ex-pat communities.

I don't mean to make a judgment of these people, as we all have our issues. And to be real, I myself certainly fit this mold for a while, though I'm trying to come to terms with it and work through it (and writing this blog helps me process these things). I'm merely pointing out what seems to be true about the interesting people you meet living abroad.

The funny thing is many of these people are pretty miserable abroad, too. But when confronted with the idea of coming home, most are even more fearful. Putting yourself at a tremendous distance can be very protective. Many remain unable to face the life they left back home. And so a year becomes years, and years become decades, and the next thing you know you've spent most of your life abroad with a comfortable buffer zone protecting you from the harsh reality of whatever you were trying to escape back home.

And so I'll close things with a thought that I've shared with people often since coming back home: How was living abroad? they ask me. It's actually pretty easy. It's coming back home that's hard.