I guess it started when I was a kid. Or maybe I was born with it, a gene passed on from my immigrant parents, even though they claim they don’t understand why I do it.
In elementary school I snuck off campus at recess and ran around the block, just to see if I could. I explored every possible route home, to see what they all were like. My favorite school day of the year was International Day, when we got to taste food from different countries and look at strange things from far-away places.
I was born, the last kid of four, in the same year that my dad, a forty-six year old machinist, was laid off from his factory job. He quickly found another one at United Airlines, a union shop, which offered among its benefits free travel passes for the family. My bug would be fed early. I sometimes wonder if my life would be different if he’d gotten a job making vacuum cleaner parts or some random widget instead of airplane parts.
We got three weeks of vacation a year, which meant one long trip or two short ones. The first thing I did when I boarded the plane was to pull out the safety information card from the seat pocket, and my dad would describe the differences between the types of airplanes. The two-leg trip to Florida was on smaller 737’s, which only had two engines, one on each wing. Hawaii was a DC-10, which had the two on the wings plus one in the tail, a design I always liked for some reason. At age 9 I started flying alone on little 727 shuttle flights to visit my older sister in LA. And when I finally left the country at age 11 for a safari in Kenya, a week with relatives in the northern mountains of Italy, and a few days in Paris, it was on a 747 so big that it had two engines on each wing and I was afraid to stray too far from my parents’ seats.
Despite the adventures, I grew up in the same cultural box everyone else did. This is the inside of the box, that is the outside. Stay inside, I was told. This is right, that is wrong. This is the way things are. This is the way to act. We all grow up in a culture of some sort or another, and every culture has its truth. It boundaries. The edges of its box.
As with anything that had boundaries, I wanted to cross them. It didn’t take me long to see the things I didn’t like around me, and as soon as I realized there were other boxes, I wanted to explore them. The little boxes of subculture I found when I took the 45 minute 7X bus ride into San Francisco, and the big boxes that spanned faraway continents.
I guess back then I dreamed I would find a box that fit me. One where people would think the same as me, and hold the same values, move at the same speed and laugh at the same things. Maybe we all dream that. Maybe some do find it. If I had known then that the more I wandered the less I’d fit in anywhere, would I have stopped?
No, I don’t think so.
Because I think maybe I like what I found even better. Instead of a box that fit, I found bits and pieces with which I could make a mosaic out of myself. And I found the black and white world changing to a thousand shades of gray, and even those shades shifted with the changing light. What was obvious in one place was blatant fallacy in another. What was polite on this side of the border was terribly rude on the other. An easy task here was difficult there, and vice versa. The impossible in one land was simply ordinary on the other side of the fence. The world grew bigger and more fascinating with each new step.
And so arose the freedom that comes with uncertainty, and all its challenges. There was no longer one right way to live or behave, everything depended on how one looked at it and where one happened to be standing. I began to realize how arbitrary my judgments and customs were. And how arbitrary everyone else’s were. I made mistakes, lots of them, and gained a lot more sympathy for other peoples’ mistakes. I became a lot less sure of myself, and had to learn to embrace that.
Soon I had sat outside the box long enough to see my “American-ness” through others’ eyes, and I realized how misunderstood cultures are by those outside of them. I had struggled my whole childhood to speak loudly enough to be heard, and now my normal speaking voice was considered obnoxiously loud in a soft-spoken culture. I heard people talk about how cold North Americans are because they don’t look each other in the eye, but I was relieved beyond measure when I got back to the States from South America or India and finally didn’t have everyone staring at me all the time. I was taught to ask for what I want, but in parts of Europe I was suddenly selfish for expressing my needs, and I thought others were annoyingly incommunicative for not expressing theirs. Venezuelans laughed at me for always arriving too early, Germans berated me for arriving too late.
But just as I was taught to be respectful of cultural differences, so others around the world were usually tolerant of mine. We learned to remember someone probably wasn’t rude or selfish, just coming from a different place, where everything has a different meaning. Friendships grew despite it all, and across the world, commonalities outweighed the differences.
But something changed in the past decade that made it all a bit harder. Americans became the bad guys in a new way. In the nineties when I said I was American, I got mixed responses. Some scowled, some smiled in reverence, and most people seemed to just find it interesting. But now I get a plastic smile. The most common response to “I’m American” is “Oh yeah? What do you think of Bush?”
It’s a test. Nobody ever asked, “What do you think of Clinton?” When I quickly state that I think Bush is an idiot, they soften up a bit. They still tend to have mistrust in their eyes, but I’ve passed the first test, and they’ll keep talking to me. The follow-up question is usually, “So why did you all vote for him?” I try to explain media propaganda, PR companies, sketchy voting machines and uncounted votes, how the international news we get is so different than the news they get, and the system that makes half of us not even want to even bother casting a vote. But their eyes glaze over early on.
The funny thing about being from a politically unpopular country is how the standards change. The politically unpopular group, whether it’s the French in England or Americans in Europe or Arabs in Moldova or Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, or whatever -it’s somebody anywhere-, that group can be engaged in the exact same activity as others but suddenly they are scrutinized and the activity is blamed on their nationality. They are proof that people from that place are bad. All the non-offensive people are not seen as proof that people from that place are good; instead it is assumed that even though it’s not showing now, they are probably bad too and should be watched closely. And if you watch anyone closely enough, you’re bound to find whatever you’re looking for. Tolerance of cultural difference goes out the window. What was once cute or idiosyncratic is now intolerable.
The wise, empathic or well-traveled always recognize the difference between a person and her government, and the difference between what’s in a person’s heart and what is their cultural habit. I began to wonder what the world would look like is we could better learn to see through each others’ lenses. What if we really took the time to understand where others are coming from, not only internationally but within our communities and between the subcultures around us, which often have differences more striking than international ones? What if we all knew what it is like to be far from home, alone, and different? What if we waited to form our viewpoints until we could correctly explain the views of those we think we disagree with? What if we could find the validity even in those things we consider “wrong,” and begin our discussions from there?
Would we still have wars? Would our interpersonal fights end more gracefully? Would we find friends in people we previously dismissed? Would we be more OK with the fact that we’re different? Might we even come to enjoy the fact that we’re different? Would we find that we have a lot more in common than we ever imagined?
Would we as individuals feel less judged, less shy or inadequate or afraid, and more acceptable? Less pressure to fit into a box and more freedom to blossom into our best selves? Would we be able to love ourselves more, and from that, love everyone else more? What would our world look like if we really understood how people came to stand where they do, instead of just dismissing them as wrong? What if we could see exactly how we ourselves might have come to stand there, if we had encountered some different roadsigns along the way? Would we finally come to understand our interconnectedness, and how ultimately, when we do something that hurts humankind, we in the end hurt ourselves as well? And when we make the world a better place, it is our better world that we then get to live in? Would we come to the conclusion that any other way of living is short-sighted?
In the end, this is why I travel. To learn to see from as many different perspectives as possible. To learn to recognize fear in all its forms, and walk away from it. To learn to see a good heart in all its forms, and embrace it. To learn to act from wisdom instead of ignorance, from understanding instead of from a box. I’m not there yet. Far from it. But maybe with every trip around the block or around the world I can get a bit closer. Maybe we can share our journeys and get there together.