The 3 Best (Not-So-Pleasant) Lessons of Travel

Travel

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I remember watching an interview for the film Saving Mr. Banks where Richard Sherman described his interactions with P. L. Travers as “coming out a wonderful, yummy, warm shower, and you feel very good and happy and up and somebody comes in with a bucket of ice cold water and pours it on top of you.”

 

That experience for me was Suzhou, China.

 

After Beijing and Shanghai, where all I got were incredulous questions when I didn’t respond to the locals in perfect Mandarin and icy glares when my American chaperone had to answer for me, followed by the icy question of “ She’s not Chinese?” I was looking forward to going somewhere else. Sure, I liked those cities, but I wanted to see more of China. And that meant going beyond tourist-y shops, and The Great Wall.

 

After all, I loved traveling. I loved going outside my comfort zone.

 

And the impression I got wasn’t a very good one. But those ten days will stay with me for a lifetime because of it. And not just because of the memory of hundreds of peddlers assaulting our tour bus, yelling at us to buy their wares and shoving their stuff in our faces.

 

The Welcome Carpet Won’t Always Be Rolled Out

 

It could not have been clearer that my host family had been expecting a life-sized Barbie to come walking out of the bus. Dinners consisted mostly of awkward silence. The moments of conversation we did have were few and far between despite my attempts to get to know them. You could say that they just didn’t know what to do with me, and that my Mandarin was basic, except for the fact that the grandparents spent every meal I ate in that house glowering at me, watching my every move. Other than that, the family stared right through me during meals like I didn’t exist.

 

To say that I was uncomfortable was an understatement.

 

My host grandparents looked at me and saw Japanese people, people who had caused them pain. It didn’t matter that I had an American passport.

 

You are not your heritage. Some people won’t want to know you; that’s just how the world works. You are not any of the labels society puts on you. Just because someone doesn’t want to know you doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t want to know you.

 

 

Some People Will Just Want to Order Panda Express

 

As an adventurous eater, I’ve always liked trying food from different cultures. I am the kind of girl who tries the things that other people wrinkle their noses at. It’s great fodder for stories. And if you don’t like it, you can at least say you tried it, right?

 

Let’s just say that in China, there was one individual who leaned over our giant table during lunch one afternoon and asked, “Laoshi (Teacher), how do you say orange chicken?”

 

This individual proceeded to try to order orange chicken in halting Mandarin, only to receive a blank stare from the local waitress in return and 17 additional pairs of eyes staring at him. You could tell we were all thinking the same thing:

 

Panda Express? When you’ve traveled halfway across the world? Really?

 

For the rest of the trip, people proceeded to bother this particular individual.

 

“Come on. You’re in China. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?”

 

I’m not saying to order the local delicacies every time you go out and travel. But it’s more than likely that you’ll encounter people who aren’t as comfortable as you are about doing certain things. Not just when you travel, but in life in general.

 

Sure, you can have your own opinion about the things someone does, but that doesn’t mean that you need to force your opinions on them or make them feel guilty.

 

If someone you know wants to order Panda Express in China, let them order their Panda Express (or the equivalent). It’s their life, their experience. You have no control over that.

 

 

Staying In Familiar Territory Doesn’t Have To Be Bad

 

I’ve talked about finding your tribe, people who can support you. Up until this trip, I had always thought that if you weren’t pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, you weren’t making the most of the experience.

 

But after being virtually ignored by my host family and nearly passing out on the Great Wall of China, it was a welcome relief to chat with classmates on the tour buses and share our experiences. They were able to offer sympathy to those of us who were struggling. We bonded over the fact that we slept on beds that consisted of two-by-fours covered by a sheet. And yes, when we were really homesick, we found a Pizza Hut.

 

I had always been irritated by foreign students who came to the US, found a group of people from their homeland, formed a clique, and refused to leave that security blanket. It took me going to China to realize this, but I finally understood why foreign students form cliques and are so often afraid to branch out.

 

Sometimes experiences just don’t go the way you envision they will in your head. And it’s okay to admit that you didn’t like something. Traveling to a foreign country can be scary. Having a community that can offer you support as you navigate through your experience and speak your native language with you isn’t bad.

 

What are the most valuable lessons YOU’VE learned from a not-so-stellar travel experience?

 

 

 

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The 3 Most Important Lessons I Learned From The Land Down Under

Travel

ImageWhen you think of traveling, what do you think of?

Do you think of wandering local restaurants and avoiding tourist attractions like the plague so you can really immerse yourself in your experience?

Do you fantasize about falling in love with a local like the protagonists did in those cheesy 90’s movies?

Are you the kind of person who has to plan every hour of every day of your trip? Or are you someone who just likes to let things unfold?

 

I was the planner. But now I’m not so sure; I might be inching toward the latter.

 

And it took the me going to the land down under to start the inching.

 

You could say I came away from Australia with an appreciation for nature, TimTams, and some local lingo. And in some sense, that’s true. But I will always be grateful to the land of the Aussies for teaching me these things (and taking me out of my comfort zone again)

 

Expect The Unexpected

 

I had been dreaming of spending 4 months in London, interning abroad, using the internship as a way for me to start building a base for an international career.

 

Well my dreams of walking along the Thames and taking the Tube to a fantastic internship were dashed with a single e-mail.

 

I have no shame in admitting that I was crushed. I was burned out from exams, and the earthquake and tsunami had just hit Japan. The thought of the possibility of going to London for 4 months was the only thing that kept me going. I held onto the idea with an iron fist; I knew it was mine. It had to be.

 

And then it didn’t happen.

 

But after I had somewhat recovered, I realized that I had two choices:

 

a)    Don’t go abroad (and regret it for the rest of my life and wonder “what if”)

b)   Go abroad (and experience new things and be open to new possibilities.)

 

You know which option I went with.

 

Taking chances is always scary. There’s no way around it. But sometimes the things that seem to be the worst things on the planet turn out to be the best things ever. I didn’t expect to fall in love with TimTams (I can never eat Thin Mints again), try kangaroo meat or Vegemite, interact with aboriginal Australian people, or feel like the little mermaid as I swam in the Great Barrier Reef for class credit.

 

Regardless of your situation, there are always twists and turns in life; as the quote goes, a smooth sea doesn’t make for a skilled sailor. Planning can be good; but it can also prevent you from experiencing the things that might turn out to be the best memories of your travel experience.

 

 

You Never Know Unless You Try

 

One of the things that made me balk at the idea of going to the land down under was the idea of outdoor activities. I’m the kind of girl who likes a cup of tea and a good book. Hiking and camping just didn’t appeal to me.

 

But then I tried it.

 

And even after hiking part of the border of New South Wales and Queensland (which was pretty amazing, might I add), I know for sure that I am not an outdoors-y kind of girl.

 

The best thing is that I can say that I tried it. Yes, my legs were burning even though I was slogging along at the very end of the line, but I still did it.

Trying things gives you an idea of what you want, but it also gives you an idea of what you don’t want. We’ve all had that moment where we claim to hate something, try it a second time, and end up loving it.

 

Or you might end up realizing that your first impression was indeed correct; that you really don’t like whatever it is you tried.

 

And that’s still okay.

 

 

The Scary Things Might Not Be That Scary When You Actually Do Them

 

We’ve all had those things. Those seemingly insignificant things that we’re terrified of.

 

In my case, mine was traveling alone. I mean really alone. No family I knew, no hotel reservations, no guidebook, no itinerary.

 

Enter Melbourne, Australia, which became one of my favorite cities.

 

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There was something liberating about winging it. After years of always being a planner, having structure, I realized how good the opposite can be. This is not to say that I kicked the habit of being a planner to the curb, but I learned that having an open mind can make life so much easier.

 

Don’t let anyone tell you that your fears are stupid; there’s a reason for them, and they vary from person to person. It’s just that once you bite the bullet, you may find that the things you feared are actually things you like to do.

 

What are YOUR favorite foreign cities that you’ve traveled to? What have you learned from conquering your fears abroad?

 

 

The Biggest Reasons I Love Traveling

Travel

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Who doesn’t want to travel more this year?

The idea of going to a foreign country and absorbing a new culture is a very exciting. Traveling more is probably the most popular resolutions in the New Year (perhaps only second to “I’m going to lose weight.”) Seeing that, I started to reflect on how my past international travel experience has helped to foster growth.

It Pushes You Out of Your Comfort Zone

            This might sound obvious, but not being able to communicate with locals really does give you a one-dimensional travel experience. It wasn’t until I went to Japan on my own at 15 that I realized that I really needed to buckle down and learn the language if I wanted to add depth to my experiences there. I didn’t want to be the one who had to rely on a third party for a translation.

Sure, it’s intimidating to have to learn a new language, but I find that the locals are largely impressed with you if you attempt to start a conversation with them in their native tongue. Conversing with locals forces you to use body language, and it gives you the opportunity to expand your own vocabulary. Being in a new environment (particularly in places where they don’t speak English) takes away your safety blanket and pushes you outside your comfort zone.

It Forces You To Re-Evaluate

            This is especially true if you’re traveling in groups. Living with people in close proximity gives you time to observe how other people around you behave and how others (including locals) react to that behavior.

To give you a personal example, nearly 2 years ago, I stepped off a plane in Sydney, Australia with 18 other people. Traveling around the country together and living in such close proximity with each other gave me the opportunity to observe how I come across to others, how others communicate with each other, and how others (including the locals) perceive you. The trip also shed light on many facets of my personality where I still had room to grow. This awareness has prompted me to devote more time to evaluating all aspects of my life on a personal and professional level.

Live In The Moment

            Who wouldn’t want to absorb everything a new culture/city/continent has to offer while you’re on foreign soil? Absorbing yourself in what you see in a new place allows you to get the most out of your experience (which is part of the reason why I’m glad I went without a cell phone in Australia for as long as I did).

Going into a new place just being open-minded with no expectations allows you to get the most joy out of your experiences. Studies have also scientifically proven that living in the moment makes people happier. What could be better?

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The Little Things Are Important Too

            Paying attention to cultural differences that can seem miniscule can make a big difference, and add an entirely new dimension of enjoyment to your travels. I found I was fascinated with the differences between British, American, and Australian lingo. They all speak English, but what may mean one thing to an American sounds different to a British person, which in turn, sounds different to an Australian.

In addition to discovering new interests, I’ve found that by absorbing the good, the bad, and the ugly in all my international ventures, I tend to get the most out of them. Things that can seem negative in the moment can be a blessing in disguise given time and distance. You can also develop a deep appreciation for things that you used to take for granted. Gratitude just makes everything so much better.

Have you made a resolution to travel more this year?

How has traveling changed you?

How Japan Has Made Me Count My Blessings

Culture & Society, Travel

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Sometimes it takes going out of your comfort zone to realize how blessed you are.

I arrived in Japan at 15 armed with clothes to ward off the sweltering heat and what I thought was a solid vocabulary, but that confidence quickly dissipated when I heard my family try to converse with me at a normal speed. I was the American, the exotic one. They broke down words and spoke to me like a 5 year old the minute they saw my eyebrow furrowing.

It gave me an opportunity to try to take a backseat and listen rather than talk.

Watching my friends and family, I learned that a “nice” Japanese woman wasn’t supposed to be outspoken; she couldn’t accept compliments, either. You weren’t supposed to take care of yourself before you took care of others.

When an interviewer would ask a young actor what sort of woman he found attractive (a question nearly always asked in Japanese entertainment television), the answer was almost always something along the lines of an attractive woman who would cook, clean, do all the things men “weren’t supposed to do.”

The roles I saw in television shows only served to emphasize that description. The magazines were worse. Big, glossy publications filled with pictures of airbrushed models who had unnaturally big eyes, dyed hair and pale skin or came from mixed racial backgrounds were plastered everywhere. Friends of mine and young girls on the street (who were perfectly beautiful) would look at these images and say to their friends that they wanted a lighter skin tone, lighter hair, to be of mixed racial origin because that was what was considered pretty.

I had done that too. Oh the power of the media.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Japan for many reasons. The public transportation system is reliable (and clean), the food is incredible, and the people are extremely polite. Not to mention that the department stores are incredibly well organized and meticulously put together. Where else would you find a customer service representative willing to give you a waterproof bag to put your purchases in so that they don’t get ruined on your walk to the train station?

I understand that as someone who has never lived in the country for an extended period of time, my views may be biased. There are plenty of things about the country’s culture that I don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean that travel can’t teach you anything about yourself and life.

Doing things just because you’re told “you should” doesn’t guarantee you’ll be happy (or healthy)

Many friends of mine are in unfulfilling jobs just to have the safety net of financial security. They do it so their parents won’t worry about them. But that financial security comes at the expense of their passions. Inevitably, the phrase, “I wish I could” comes up in our discussions revolving around the job market. I feel for them. Many aren’t in a position to just pack up and go. Watching them shows me how blessed I am to have the family I do, and live in a society where it’s OK to forge your own path instead of going down the beaten track.

Find things that you like about yourself in order to stop comparisons

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This one is a tall order. It’s much easier said than done. Comparing myself to the models in magazines and television only served to make me feel awful about my own appearance when I looked perfectly fine.

It wasn’t until I was back in the States that I realized something. Sure, I would have liked to have avoided the condescending stares in the trains, and sure, I didn’t look like Yuri Ebihara or Meisa Kuroki (the two models pictured above) but I loved having the confidence to wake up every morning knowing that I didn’t need to paint my face to feel beautiful. (This is not to condemn makeup. Makeup can alter a person’s appearance and thereby give them a degree of confidence, which is never a bad thing. I personally prefer going makeup-free.) Finding little things like that about yourself that you appreciate can help build your confidence without the media telling you to do one thing or another.

“The media can be an instrument of change. It can awaken people and change minds. It depends on who’s piloting the plane.”

                                                                       -Katie Couric, MissRepresentation, 2010

Keeping your emotions in check on account of others = not good

Too often, I’ve had 3 way discussions with acquaintances and friends, where one friend says something, and the second the third person is out of earshot, they turn to me and say what they really think, which often turns out to be the opposite of what they actually said.

It’s true that there are situations that arise where it’s not entirely appropriate to voice certain opinions, which vary from culture to culture. Try to be aware of that. But I’m a firm believer that honesty is better in the long run. If you keep suppressing your opinion, the frustration builds, and without a good outlet for that energy…well, things don’t always turn out pretty.

Age is just a number

You can be in your eighties and still act like a child having a tantrum. You can be in your twenties and enjoy things that people in their fifties do. Young people can be wise beyond their years. The idea that the older you are, the wiser you are, is not always true.

Read between the lines

Sometimes the things that aren’t said are the most powerful and profound moments.

Ask for what you want

If you don’t ask for it, or make your goals known, the answer will always be no. You never know who will be able to help you. Silence will get you nowhere in life.

Are there any particularly profound lessons you’ve learned while traveling abroad?