How to Change the World Through Travel

How to Change the World Through Travel

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” — “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now” by Maya Angelou (1993)

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Changing the world may seem like an incredibly lofty goal, especially in today’s world of intolerance and hate being slung by even those in positions of power in supposedly “great” nations.  So many people all over the world have such incredible and unfounded hatred for others , and it may seem like an essentially insurmountable hurdle to change this cycle of misinformation and misunderstanding.

I do, however, have a solution, and it’s largely inspired by my all-time favorite quote from Maya Angelou:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

How powerful is that?  How powerful is it to consider that there are millions of people all over the world that you’ve never met and likely never will meet, and they’re all living in essentially the same way as you are.  We all have these fundamental needs and behaviors that are built into our very essence, but it’s so easy to forget that “other” people also experience all of these things.  So, the solution: we need to experience how other people experience these things at the expense of our own comfort.  Simple, right?

I have a very embarrassing confession to make that I hope will demonstrate the point that I’m trying to convey:

Years ago, when I was completing my first year of university in central Pennsylvania, I was strolling through the local grocery store with a friend.  We came across the greeting card aisle, and as it was getting close to Mother’s Day, there was a plethora of Mother’s Day greeting cards.  A handful of those cards were written in Spanish, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Why?  Why are they selling greeting cards in Spanish in central Pennsylvania?”  It’s inconceivable to me now that someone, especially myself, would actually think this way, but when I come across people expressing these sentiments, I have to understand.  I have to understand that people who have always lived in one place and haven’t truly experienced other people from other cultures, or culture shock, won’t understand the concept of people living differently than they do.  I understand this mentality, but I do not excuse it.

I had traveled before I started college.  I had traveled abroad several times, in fact.  But I had never been shocked in the way that I was when I first studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France.  Before, I had recognized that the people I saw when I was traveling were different, but they were also the “others”, and therefore unlike myself.  When I arrived in Marseille, I was immediately dropped in a place where I didn’t understand the people, language, or way of life, and I was shocked.  I was shocked that people lived so incredibly differently there than I had ever lived before, and yet, they were still living in much the same way that I did at home.  They went to school or work, ate and drank, slept and relaxed.  They had dogs and cats, and went grocery shopping, and ran into friends in the city.  They just did all of these things in a different way than I had experienced before.  And then it became clear I was expected to assimilate to that new lifestyle.  Some of these new facets of life were welcome, and others not, but regardless, I had to deal with it.  But beyond dealing with it, I had to understand it.  And with even more difficulty, I had to come to terms with what it meant to live within a culture that was unlike my own, and not have people adapt to meet me on my level.  I was expected to speak French because I was in France, and I had a newfound appreciation for anyone willing to come to my level and tolerate my Fren-glish.

Which brings me back to those Spanish greeting cards- a year earlier, I was looking at “foreign” cards and not understanding why they were even there in my English-speaking world.  After about a week in France, I truly understood what those cards could potentially mean to Spanish-speakers still struggling to learn English.  I made my first weekend trip to London despite having had already been there because I couldn’t WAIT to have English-speaking people surrounding me and signs in English to follow.  It took just a couple weeks of my first real time living abroad to understand what it felt like to be the “other”, and to appreciate the struggles that the “others” go through in my own culture.

I feel so lucky that I was able to have such a shocking experience that moved me so violently to the point that I was able to reconsider my view of “others” in such a significant way.  And this is precisely how travel, especially immersive travel, changes the world.  It forces us to confront ideas, people, and situations that aren’t familiar to us, and that makes us better, more tolerant people.  This development of tolerance and understanding in the midst of uncomfortable situations is exactly the reason that I believe everyone should travel or live abroad at least once in their lives.

I doubt I would recognize now the person who I was when I graduated from high school.  After having that first immersive experience, it became immediately and deafeningly clear how important it was for my world to be rocked.  I needed to cry myself to sleep out of confusion and frustration in order to understand that there are people all around the world living in even more different ways than the culture I was living in in Aix.  And there are people all around the world living in cultures other than their own faced with locals who simply do not understand what it’s like to be in their position.  I will never again judge someone who is struggling to speak English, as I know now what it feels like for someone to judge me for struggling to speak French, or even more painfully, Czech.

If you haven’t already, I first encourage you to go somewhere that’s different from the places you know.  Put yourself in an uncomfortable (albeit safe) situation, and learn what it feels like to be there and be the “other” despite trying to “fit in” by learning the customs or language.  And when you go to that place, don’t consider those different things to be wrong, but merely different.  Appreciate the difference for what they are, not what they aren’t.  And if traveling like this isn’t in the cards for you at the moment, get involved at home- find people who are struggling like this to fit in to your own culture, and offer to help.  Be a conversation buddy or a culture buddy- who knows, you may even get a new language or friend out of it!  Above all else, remember that we’re all human, and our humanity must come first.  Always.

9 thoughts on “How to Change the World Through Travel

  1. This post reminds me of how mad I get at Islamophobia. I have visited a number of Islamic countries, and the people are so warm and friendly. I had a great discussion with an imam in Kuala Lumpur (who gave me an honorary Islamic name). He was so against violence done in the name of Islam. Now I know I might get treated differently if many of these people knew that I am gay. But I appreciate that it is a different culture without all the rights and liberties we have in the West. Nonetheless, I wish some of those in the US who say they hate Muslims could come with me to Malaysia or Oman or such and discover what Muslims are truly like.

    1. Islamophobia drives me crazy, especially when it’s the same rhetoric being repeated over and over again. My heart breaks for innocent people who are just trying to live peaceful lives and are cast in this evil light by ignorant outsiders. Thank you for your comment, I’m so happy to hear of your experience in Kuala Lumpur, it sounds like it was a beautiful experience.

  2. Such an amazing quote from Maya Angelou. It still amazes me how people can be so vitriolic and hate-filled towards whole swathes of people, based on the actions of a few – actions unrelated to the nature of individual people who happen to identify with the same ethnicity. Islamophobia is increasingly rife in Europe and in the US – based on what evidence?

    If more people could would think like you, because we all can, the world would be a better place.

    WTW.

    1. Thanks for your comment, WhenTwoWander! I always try to be understanding of others’ viewpoints, but this Islamophobic rhetoric is a tough one for me to come to terms with. Hopefully with the increasing accessibility of travel, we won’t have so many spreading these hateful ideas!

      1. You have to try to understand to some extent. It seriously pushes the limits though when an ideology and way of living actively advocates the murder of those who do not agree with you..

        Your experience with the cards, and the enlightenment (if you like) to your new way of thinking, will definitely have happened to other people. I think it’s great that you can actually pinpoint the place where your thoughts changed.

  3. What a wonderful post this is! We’ve all at some point in our lives been the “other”. When we cease to remember what that feels like we start expecting the new “others” to assimilate quickly, forgetting how difficult it was for us to do so. If we can all just remember what it feels like to be on the outside struggling to get in, perhaps we won’t be so quick to judge those who are the new “others”.

    1. Absolutely! This was a huge life lesson for me, and it’s the reason I’m so adamant that all US undergraduates should study abroad during their time in university- it’s so important to be thrown outside of your comfort zone like this!

      1. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t agree with you more! I wish there was some way to make study abroad a requirement. Of course, we’d have to overhaul our educational system so that it would be affordable. But when I travel I see families and students from all over the world who have chosen to give themselves this kind of education. American students are always represented the least. It would provide such an education that no book or classroom ever could!

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