A lot of people ask me why I travel. Most times there is something behind their question. Why do you travel alone? Why do you travel in Asia? Why do you travel so cheap? Why don’t you stay in nicer areas? Why don’t you go on tours?
These are all great questions that, for me, can be answered pretty simply. I travel to learn from other people and to be a better person. I travel to watch. I like to watch the people and how they interact with one another. I like to watch the traffic patterns. I watch how they treat the elderly. I watch how they give gifts. How they show affection, respect, approval, and disappointment. While I am watching all of these things, I incorporate the good I see into my life. I don’t think that I can observe and learn any of those things if I don’t take the common trains, see common things, sleep in common places, buy common things, and eat common food. How can I learn from someone if I am purposely separating myself from them?
As a middle class teenaged American I was confident that there were only two ways to do things; right and wrong. My first international trip was a huge wake-up call. My world view was immediately shattered. The harsh reality was that things are much more complicated than I believed. Aside from a few universal blacks and whites (like murder is a no no), the world is grey.
For example, I was taught all my life that throwing trash anywhere but a trash bin was morally wrong. It creates a dirty atmosphere, harms the environment, and reflects poorly on me as an individual. Imagine my dismay and, I’m ashamed to say, judgement when I went to rural China and saw people throw their trash right onto the street. After I realized that it was a cultural norm in that city, I got up the nerve to ask someone about it. The conversation went a like this:
- Me: Hey, why do you guys throw your trash on the ground?
- Them: It’s convenient.
- Me: Finding a trashcan shouldn’t be that difficult.
- Them: Have you ever been outside in before 5AM?
- Me: *shakes head*
- Them: If you were up and out that early, you would see hundreds of grandmas sweeping the trash off the streets.
- Me: That’s a terrible job for a grandma!
- Them: We don’t have nursing homes or social security like you do in the U.S. By throwing my trash on the ground I am making sure that a grandma has an income and can survive. She may not have any children or grandchildren to take care of her. Also, installing trash cans along the road would be an unnecessary expense for our city.
Kaboom, my brain exploded.
I’m sure I didn’t know how to respond. That conversation changed my life. He was telling me that throwing trash in a trash can the wrong thing to do morally. If throwing my trash on the ground was a good thing what did that mean for the rest of my Western education?
Conversations like this make me think more deeply about my impact on the people with whom I interact. Out of the 7.4 billion people on the planet, I get to sit by this one in class or talk to this one at a toll booth. Don’t I have a moral obligation to make sure it is a positive interaction for both of us? I can’t do that if I don’t know or care about where they come from and what they believe.
I’ve also learned that just because my culture tells me something is unacceptable, it is not wrong. It’s okay to diverge from the pack and be unique. My fondest hope for you, as a reader, is that you will find how capable you are. You can do anything. You can go and see and do and fail and experience and learn and love. Do not be afraid to take a leap on something that could change you life. Even if that means taking the risk of learning and changing. I have found that those are the most rewarding risks.