“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)
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.