Traveling isn’t just about drinking cheap beer, escaping cold weather and sunbathing on the world’s best beaches—there is an intellectual component to it as well. Indeed, if you explore new grounds beyond the safe boundaries of an all-inclusive resort, you will come to a few conclusions.
I certainly did.
Here are four life lessons I learned on the road.
Globalisation can be a wonderful thing
Globalisation is often portrayed as this sinister force that exploits the poor, makes the rich richer, deepens inequalities and is responsible for all evils today. It is true that it does have many negative impacts worldwide. Philosophically speaking, I wish we hadn’t become disillusioned modern-day slaves to the market, productivity and economic growth. Cynical shrugs from the 1% just rub salt in the ideological wound.
After all, I did spend my teenager years shouting anti-capitalism slogans and cheering every time a McDonald’s restaurant was dismantled (yes, this was a trend in the late 1990s).
But globalization is here to stay, it’s not something you can fight easily, although I do hope we can tweak it to be more compassionate, more human.
The impact of globalization is obvious to travelers. Franchises that stand at your street’s corner may greet you upon landing thousands of kilometres away, sought-after brands gained a foothold on all continents and I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t find a can of Coke. You can jump in a taxi in Kuala Lumpur and hear Justin Bieber’s latest hit song, shop at Carrefour in Buenos Aires, buy Chinese candies in Sydney.
And you know what? Sometime, as a traveler, it’s freaking awesome.
Maybe this is a selfish narrow-minded perspective, but there is something deeply comforting about the way we are all connected through common trends, blockbuster movies, pop tunes and shopping habits. It’s convenient too—I dare you to find a backpacker who hasn’t walked into a McDonald’s or a Starbucks abroad, just for the sake of enjoying something blandly familiar.
Globalization allows you to find modern conveniences in remote or poorer places. I’m happy to drink safe bottled water in China, I’m glad to see modern bathrooms in Guatemala, I understand why people around the world study English, the de facto lingua franca.
Beside, it’s funny to notice that whatever globalization exports is still different from one country to another. For instance, each big fast-food joint has local menu items: in China, you can have 油条 at MacDonald’s and Brazilian Starbucks offer brigadeiro-flavoured Frappuccinos. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Def Leppard’s songs interpreted in a Chinese karaoke!
“Exotic” food can be surprisingly familiar
Every country, every region has unique delicacies and specialties, but after traveling in several places, you start noticing a pattern. Indeed, we all crave sugar, we all eat carbs, we all cook the same veggies, fry the same stuff. Super exotic specialties with completely unknown ingredients are rare.
For instance, Chinese dumplings “jiaozi” are very similar to Japanese gyoza, to Polish pierogis and to Italian raviolis. Variants of empanadas (dough with stuffing) can be found throughout Central and South America and they are after all very close to some savoury Asian pastries, these bread rolls stuffed with ham, cheese, minced meat or onion. Rice is a staple food for half of the planet—the other half probably eats noodles or pasta. Many countries eat cheese, from the heavily processed Kraft kind in North America to half-rotten wedges of roquefort in France.
Next time you’re perusing a menu in a restaurant abroad, pause and analyze the various dishes. Yes, they are many unique ingredients, but you are likely to spot a few specialties that will feel very familiar!
The world isn’t such a bad place
I’m one of these Rousseau disciples who believes that human beings are naturally good and that we were perverted by society. I’m happy to report that by and large, my experiences traveling the world support this philosophy.
Despite newspaper headlines, I don’t think we should waste too much energy on fear of getting kidnapped, raped, mugged, killed, scammed or beaten everywhere we go. From what I observed in our travels, most people just mind their own business, they want to live their life, make money, take care of their loved ones, have fun once in a while. We aren’t that complicated, really.
There are bad people in this world—just not as many as we fear.
I’m not saying you should be completely careless; common-sense prevails. But learn to trust people cautiously. Don’t assume the worse, don’t shut everybody out and be a decent person yourself. You’ll be surprised how much easier life is. Yes, it could be as simple as that.
Being a visible minority is a humbling experience
I remember my first reaction when I stepped inside Beijing’s Airport in 1999: “wow, everybody is Chinese!” Well, duh—airhead moment. But I was 16 and for the first time ever, I was a visible minority. I was white and everybody was Asian. I was taller than most women, bigger too and I could most definitely not “pass for” Chinese. I stood out. And for the first time, I realize it must be how visible minorities feel.
You notice the stares, everywhere you go you are aware that you are sticking out, no face looks like yours. Clothes don’t fit you well, products aren’t adapted to your hair, your skin. You aren’t represented in commercials, ads or in the media. You will hear a few hostile comments uttered on the sole basis of your “minority” status (at least I did, this is the downside of speaking Mandarin…).
Of course, my short-term anecdotal minority experience can’t be compared to a lifetime of being a minority. I am not a Black woman in the Deep South, I am not an Indian man in Australia, I am not an Algerian kid in France, “minorities” who can face challenges, including discrimination, on a daily basis. Still, it was an humbling experience for me.
Added learning experience: not that I needed proof, but it goes without saying that I think racial bias and discrimination are just dumb. We are all beautifully different.
How about you? What lesson did traveling teach you?