This post has been on my mind a lot lately, but I never knew quite how to articulate it. Finally, after recent events reached an intensity level I’ve never seen before, I decided to put pen to paper.
Years ago, I wrote a post about how travel has helped me become more tolerant and understanding of people who are from unfamiliar cultures and backgrounds. It was written after just a few short school breaks spent traveling, and admittedly to many places (London, Paris, Central Europe, the Philippines) where people weren’t actually that different from me. However, after over 5 years of traveling, immersing myself in new cultures, and learning about the world around me, I still believe that travel teaches understanding, empathy, and respect above all else.
Today, I sit here in my apartment in Houston and revisit this topic, after a few months of watching different groups of people in my country become the targets of religious and racial prejudice. The widespread hatred that continues to marginalize Muslims, refugees, other racial groups, LGBTQ+ groups, women, etc. in the United States is starting to become more of a question of compassion and humanity than it is about elections or politics. Watching this all unfold, I can’t help but think back to the lessons that travel has taught me, and how I wish more people could travel and learn these things for themselves.
* * *
Houston is an interesting place. It’s a sprawling, gray grid of a city. It’s not beautiful, green, or surrounded by mountains, nor is it full of new, shiny buildings. However, Houston is said, by some, to be the most diverse city in the United States, and that’s what makes living here so wonderful. I can drive 20 minutes and get authentic Afghan food. 20 minutes in the opposite direction takes me to a taco truck where the workers don’t speak English. You can find Korean karaoke houses next to “discotecas” and Ethiopian restaurants, and no Houstonian would find it strange.
That’s the beauty of our beloved United States, too. Our country is a country of immigrants, a “mosaic” of sorts built upon hundreds of years of movement and open arms. Historically, we have welcomed millions of people seeking refuge from religious and political persecution to our shores, including many of our own founding fathers. We have embraced women, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, immigrants, and refugees as leaders of our communities.
Now that this unique kind of beauty is being jeopardized, travel and cultural immersion play a more important role than ever before. Being open to different cultures and beliefs, rather than spewing hatred and disdain, is the key to opening the dialogue and changing the world for the better. Don’t believe me? Here are a few ways travel can help us build a better future for our country and our world:
1. Travel opens the mind
You can’t travel in a box. Well, you could travel in a box, but what fun would that be? Travel is about going to a new place, roaming its streets, eating the cuisine and listening to the language. It’s about meeting people and hearing their stories. As we learn more about the world, we start to see it with different eyes. We become less afraid of people and cultures we once feared. We learn that the media sometimes doesn’t report the whole truth about a place or a population, and that first-hand experience debunks a lot of stereotypes.
The main reason why travel teaches open-mindedness is because we have to get out of our comfort zones when we travel – mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. The more we get out of this “bubble,” the easier it gets to stay outside of it. Travel teaches us to value differences and to learn from them, opening our eyes and our minds to the world around us. The world would be so boring if we all looked and acted exactly the same, right?
2. Travel teaches curiosity over hatred
According to Confucius, “It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love.” It can be almost natural to feel some kind of hatred toward groups of people who have different beliefs than us, or who believe in things we don’t quite understand. When we meet people who look or act differently, it can be easy to stereotype them or make judgments about their character before they’ve even said a word.
Travel teaches us to be inquisitive, rather than harboring antagonistic feelings or recoiling in fear and discomfort. It teaches us to question our own thought processes and reinvent the way we see people. The more we travel, the easier it becomes to skip small talk and dive deeper. When we start to see the world with a “blank slate,” we can form opinions based on our own experiences instead of hearsay. Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we asked each other questions, rather than shouting obscenities, spray painting walls, and blindly taking sides?
3. Travel teaches us to depend on one another
Imagine if every time you asked for help, you were met with a stern “no.” You wouldn’t get very far, would you? This is often how many marginalized groups of people in countries all over the world feel when they go to their politicians or fellow citizens for guidance or assistance. We, as travelers, know that it’s much easier to get around when we can trust and depend on fellow travelers and locals for help when we need it.
In travel, I wouldn’t have made it to all of the places I’ve been without the generosity of others. Whether it’s asking for directions, meeting people in hostels, getting recommendations from locals, or being escorted to the hospital on a motorcycle, I’ve learned that the only way we can get by in this world is by helping each other. Similarly, I’ve given directions when I’ve been asked, helped friends and strangers all over the world with their most pressing travel questions, and driven people to and from the hospital when they needed me the most. This isn’t “an eye for an eye,” it’s just being a decent human being and recognizing how you can use your skills to help someone else, no matter how insignificantly. Traveling has taught me to (cautiously) depend on others when I need something, and how to pay it forward to others who could use my help.
4. Travel teaches us to communicate
When I was in Myanmar, I spent a day with some female Buddhist monks who spoke no English. They “adopted” me for the day but we had trouble communicating with words. Instead, we found ways to communicate outside of the traditional words I was accustomed to. We communicated via body language and hand signals, over food and drinks, through facial expressions and learning bits and pieces of each others’ languages. What resulted was me learning how they eat in Buddhist monasteries (with their hands), what apprenticeship looks like, that everyone loves pet cats, how Buddhists pray in the evenings, and that hugs are universal. Because I spent a day just absorbing all of the different forms of communication that these women had to offer, I still learned a ton despite not sharing a common language.
Communication is composed of a two-way street – talking and listening. When either of those things are compromised, we are no longer communicating. While travel helps us to open our eyes and our minds, it also teaches us to lend our ears and our hearts. Just like my experience in Myanmar, learning how to truly listen, communicate, and see eye-to-eye with others who are different than us is a skill that can help us, as a community, become more open to change. Sometimes, especially in politics, it seems like people on both sides of the fence simply talk without listening. Once we truly start to communicate differing opinions and circumstances, we can actually have a constructive, forward-moving dialogue.
5. Travel teaches us that we are lucky
As an American citizen, I can still travel to most countries in the world without feeling like I am in danger of violence. As an employed, college graduate, I have the disposable income and skills I need to invest in travel and better understand other cultures. As a Houston resident, I have a variety of friends from all different ethnicities and backgrounds, who have all played a role in developing and changing my worldview every single day. I am lucky that I have the opportunity, the resources, and the freedom to travel and learn about our world.
Many people, both within the United States and around the world, do not have these luxuries. A large population don’t have access to clean water, electricity, and food, much less traveling internationally. If we are lucky enough to have the power and freedom to educate ourselves via travel and cultural immersion, we should take it, not only for ourselves but for the betterment of our communities and social circles. After all, a person’s environment becomes their world, and if we have more people in our communities who embrace differences in culture and background, and who give back, our world will steadily start to mirror that.
To all of you reading this and fuming because this post has slight political undertones, you are more than welcome to close this window on your computer and go about your day. It’s my blog and I can write whatever I want, thanks!
And to the rest of you, I urge you to continue to open your mind and extend a helping hand to those around you who may be struggling right now. Next time you go to a new place, ask someone about their story and who they are. Learn how to say something in their language. Read the fine print on that museum exhibit and share what you learned with a friend. The more we attempt to understand the world around us, the better that world becomes.
In order to fight hatred, bigotry, and oppression, we need to find and share acceptance, tolerance, and love. We need to prioritize the needs of our fellow human beings over the actions of politicians and the hysteria of the media. During this time, I will continue to fight for all of humanity and the rights of people who are being oppressed. I vow to continue to share the lessons I’ve learned through my travels with my community, and I will always think back to the people all over the world who taught me that love knows no barriers.