Sharing dinner with a Hmong family

Sharing dinner with a Hmong family (grandparents, parents, children, and uncles all living together) in Sa Pa, Vietnam

The more I travel, the more people I meet who carry different perspectives on life.  The more perspectives I become exposed to, the more possibilities I see in ways to move forward in my own life, work, and relationships.   As I continue to expose my way of life to reinterpretation, my worldview changes and I see how different some of the foundations of our American culture are from other cultures around the world.

Our society and culture have given rise to systems for us to operate and live within.  If we act within the system, we are more likely to fit in and the systems will perpetuate.  What we often fail to admit to ourselves however, is that society and culture are a reflection of the people.  We show pride when our society and culture reflect our proud values and accomplishments.  However, if our eyes tell us that society and culture have gone astray, the soul looking through those eyes should question its own values, motives, and flaws.  We rarely do.

As hard as it might be to let go, travel can force a re-evaluation and questioning of culture and how it conditions our thinking and behavior.  Without personal discipline, which is increasingly more difficult the noisier our world becomes, it is easy to let external forces dictate behavior.  If we allow it to, travel removes the simple conveniences of every-day life that we rely upon and take for granted.  It sacks the inertness that quietly creeps into routines back home, in which activities are pursued out of convenience perhaps more often than out of purpose.  If we allow it to, travel will require reliance upon the most basic self.

By simply removing the often taken-for-granted comforts, we lose control of our circumstances.  We’re anxious, we’re vulnerable, and we’re potentially at risk.  We are forced to live more simply, more humanely among other humans – learning who we really are and how much weaker our raw selves are than we thought.  The routines, productivity, dependency, and possessions that represent so much of our identities back home vanish and are replaced by new, naked ones that reveal our very cores.  We have no computer screens to hide behind and no voicemail or text to allow us to pre-determine our responses in lagging fashion.  Technological conveniences that make certain degrees of self-reliance and basic skills irrelevant back home aren’t present.  This triggers a new-found requirement to learn and to learn quickly.  Our narcissism, vanity, envy, and judgment rise to the surface like fat in a bowl of chicken soup.  Out of this vulnerability emerges a need to confide in strangers who don’t share the same worldview, religion, culture, or even language.  Our ability to trust ourselves and our decisions has never before been tested like this.  The internal struggle is frightening, because we are going through withdrawal.  It is painful, because we are going through detox.  But it is beautiful, because we’re experiencing in real-time a re-invigoration and reinvention of ourselves and our values.  We’ve always seen ourselves as single participants in greater humanity, but this profound experience awakens the greater humanity in us.

Vacation sometimes serves as a periodic disengagement and renewal from work.  It may be a temporary escape and may be qualified at the end with, “I had a great time but I really don’t want to go back home and re-engage.”  Immersion in culture is different however.  Whether taking place over a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, a cultural experience may be crowned with, “that was a fulfilling and enlightening experience and I am ready to return home inspired and reinvigorated with new perspective.”  Travel through cultural immersion compels us to redesign our lives while we’re on the road and encourages us to see our raw selves in a different light when we return home – surprisingly, even when we didn’t originally seek to do so.  It inserts new perspective into an old paradigm.

I think that as our society has become more advanced, we’ve become increasingly accustomed to silencing the openness, trust, and curiosity that once beamed out of us as children.  As adults, these qualities become time-consuming to nurture and leave us vulnerable to physical or emotional attack from the outside.  Further, their nurturing usually doesn’t result in near-term tangible benefits; there are more pressing needs in life and more short-term satisfactions and stresses gets more attention.  When we see the world without a shortage of time and a need for more utility and convenience, it quickly becomes apparent how erroneous it is to mute our most organic intuitions.  They may not result in the greatest reward and satisfaction in the shortest amount of time, but that doesn’t justify their suppression.  On the contrary, harnessing the rawest elements of life leads to lower anxiety, increased joy, and precludes the need for repeated short-term gratification.

Cultures inevitably change and we should hope for them to change in positive directions as a reflection of the goodness of people.  We can shield ourselves from the madness that we see in society.  We can convince ourselves that our insular or aggressive actions have no consequence on those around us.  But they do and culture reflects that.  We can convince ourselves that only influential societies leave marks on the world, not the behavior of single individuals.  But they do and culture reflects that.  Individual character and culture are intertwined and evolve together.   Conforming with what’s seemingly-normal, acceptable, and status-quo within our system is a sure way to make certain that nothing changes.  It’s important to step away and see what life looks like outside of the one we see day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.  Too common is the excuse, “well that’s just the way things are,” when describing frustration with aspects of our society and culture.  Perhaps “that’s just the way things are”…but they don’t have to be.

We should witness how our actions or lack of action impacts others, dynamics that travel helps us to witness.  We should be certain of our core values, fundamentals that travel helps us assess.  We should seek more openness, trust, and curiosity, those same elements that travel forces us to exercise.  And finally, we should experience humanity and culture in different ways, perspective that travel helps us learn.