As someone born and raised in different countries, who resides in a country I didn’t grow up in, and who’s been on extended travels, I’ve been fortunate to experience living apart from my family and my comfort zones. While I often highlight the desirable aspects of life in these different places, I never realized that I could be painting a rather inaccurate picture of these experiences to a third party—until I came across an interesting read online, written by someone who’s gone on a University exchange trip—beckoned by promises of incredible fun and exoticism of foreign lands, as painted by fellow University-exchange-trip alumni—and not entirely loving the experience.
I would like to refrain from directly linking the article in question, but would like to be entitled to give my two cents’ worth, even if it means cowardly hiding behind the security of a computer screen and avoiding being embroiled in an episode of cyber-debates.
I never realized that by emphasizing on bright lights and happy things could give those unfamiliar with such an experience the impression that everything would be more or less fine and dandy if one were to move across continents and try to live in a place so obnoxiously different from what he or she is used to. Granted, not everyone may be unable to decipher the trials and tribulations between the lovely pictures and excited blog posts, but I believe travel has been far too romanticized and exoticized.
I don’t find it surprising that travel has been so romanticized and exoticized. It is hard not to be drawn in by sights, sounds and smells so unfamiliar because all the unfamiliarity simply engages your entire being. Travelling brings you a kind of thrill that lasts in your memory even years after the experience. When done repeatedly over a long time—to different destinations—the experiences you’ve amassed from your travels allow you to think a little deeper, to see a little more light, to breathe more deeply, to be kinder, to be more compassionate and more understanding towards others. In other words, your life can move along a little smoother because you’re able to look at it from different perspectives. Your life will be completely changed, sometimes without you realizing it but when you do, you’ll feel as though you’ve been hit by a sudden wave of eureka and you’ll never ever want to turn back from that moment on. Doesn’t it sound promising and so very enticing?
I am a strong advocate of travel, but like everything there is another side to this story. Nothing ever comes for free. It’s all about give and take. Travel can bring a person mountains of benefits, but he or she can never expect to take without giving. One can never reap the full benefits of travel if he or she is motivated to travel by all the wrong things. One can never reap the full benefits of travel if he or she doesn’t maintain an extremely open mind at all times.
A very common motivation for travelling is the often unconscious or subconscious desire to escape from one’s current reality. The truth is no matter how far or how long you run, your truth will catch up with you one day. You’ll uncover the many holes one day, no matter how long it may take you. You’ll most likely experience a kind of emptiness at the very moments when you’re supposed to be on an emotional high. You’ll come back from your experiences feeling cheated, lost, and quite disconcerted. I can’t pinpoint a “correct” motivation for travelling, because of our subjective and unique experiences—I personally can’t even put to words my motivations for travelling because it is so abstract. It is not just a single thing. It is my thirst for knowledge, my desire to understand other cultures, but it doesn’t stop there. I thirst for knowledge from travelling because I know such knowledge can help me in all aspects of my life. And this is but one part of my motivations for travel.
Recently, I realized my desire to change. This is not because I have a deep-seated dislike for my innate personality and self, but this desire for change stems from the knowledge than I can change for the better. I want to and can be a better person. Although travel is only one way I can achieve this, I know travel is an extremely powerful way to achieve this. Displacing myself to oceans away, alone, having to build a life for myself from square one—is such a humble experience that words cannot succeed in explaining. Although I may make friends in these new places, I know that ultimately I am my own best friend and I am the most reliable person I can rely on. Again, these realizations do not stem from a rooted cynicism towards the human race as a whole, and towards building strong social relationships that can see you through many different things in life, but instead these realizations come to me like a breath of fresh air.
Instead of leaning on others, on best friends, on romantic partners—I feel liberated. Although my social relationships are highly important to me and I will gladly defend them with my whole being, I know there is a line between looking outwards to others for answers and turning inwards for answers to the many questions I will come across. Haruki Murakami illustrates this brilliantly in After Dark--“In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It’s important to combine the two in just the right amount.”
I feel these changes in me after my periods of travel and they often hit me suddenly, despite already living with the changes for quite a while. When I finally realize the reasons behind these changes, I’m awed. I welcome these changes—which have all been for the better because I only allow myself to reap all the good from travel, which means turning all negatives into positives, somehow.
Turning all negatives into positives is only possible if one were to keep an extremely open mind at all times. Although I never mentioned the negative aspects of my Taiwanese trip in this space, I went through a period of battling those negative aspects of my trip. I was determined, however, to turn those negatives into positives because I believe fervently that everything happens for a reason. The gist of those negative experiences was that I found myself in some unfavourable situations and yes, although we often have to suck it up and undergo many such situations in life, I still went through a period of comparing those negative aspects of my trip to “what it would be like in _________,” that “if I were in ________, it would have been different, it would have been better.”
But I was determined to find the light in those unfavourable experiences. I didn’t want to let those negative aspects threaten the otherwise rewarding and life-changing trip. And then I realized that those unfavourable experiences could work to making the entire experience even more rewarding and life-changing. So what if I hated this and that? At the end of it all I was proud to be able to tell myself I did things I detested, but yet was necessary. I was proud to be able to tell myself that if I were to be put in a similar situation, I would be better at handling it, that after those experiences, I have gained necessary and relevant life skills that will be useful in the future. Imagine how I felt my eyes were opened at that moment.
Homesickness, culture shock, alienation, lack of a sense of belonging, disillusionment, feeling inadequate—the list will never end. One is bound to experience all these either together or at several points on his or her travels, but the trick is turn all of these into something good. It is impossible to teach a person how to do this, but that’s the beauty in travel. You discover your own answers and in order to do that you build those answers for yourself. You shape the outcome of your experiences. It becomes so much easier now that you know the ball is in your hand, and for you to control