Ever since I was a little girl, my parents have taken me traveling all over the world. They have always told me how lucky I was to have been exposed to these different cultures, how open minded it made me, and how it made me unlike “those other kids” who had never traveled outside their state.
Growing up in an upper-middle household, I had no reason not to believe them. Even now I have a map on my wall with flags posted on all of the different countries I’ve visited. My parents always reminded me that traveling was a privilege few others had access to at my age, including themselves. They characterized it as an unquestionable good that I have had the experience of seeing Monet’s paintings in France or the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. I agreed when they attributed my curious personality to how well traveled I was and felt proud when others commented on how “worldly” I was.
Beyond the Surface
As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to question what that really means. When I saw coverage of the Arab Springs in Cairo and Mubarak’s ousting, I wondered how much of Egypt I really saw when I was eight and toured the inside of the pyramids. When my Malaysian friend told me of the death of Karpal Singh, an opposition leader, and the political conflicts in her country, I wondered how much I really understood of life in Kuala Lumpur while shopping in the mall under the Petronas Towers.
My parents always reminded me that traveling was a privilege few others had access to at my age, including themselves.”
In essence, I’ve become more cognizant of how horizontal my experience with different cultures has been. What I mean is, visiting a city in another country on the other side of the world for a few days can only show you the surface of that place. Digging beneath that surface in order to get a more vertical understanding is a complex process. It takes concentrated and conscious effort, and an understanding that you will never “be a local,” because your mere presence in those spaces changes the way people act.
I lived in Shanghai for six years as an expat. The neighborhoods I lived in were gated. The restaurants I went to had English menus and the bars had mostly foreign patrons. In essence, I was a tourist in the very city in which I lived. Even though I had a Chinese face, within minutes of talking to me most people could see that I had grown up with a Western education. And even though I traveled to many other countries while living in Shanghai, I’m not sure if I ever saw beyond the surface of the city I spent the most time in.
All of this is not to say that one should never travel to another country. It is to say that many of us, myself included, only get a very flat and one-dimensional experience of the places we visit. And not just the places we fly to, but also the places we live in.