Over at Ta-Nehsi Coates’ blog, he has been writing about his travels to Europe, where he is studying French. In some ways, his posts are very typical of the first-time international traveler — confusion, loneliness, reactions to weird differences, self-reflection on one’s weird reactions to differences. But in other ways — Coates being an adult from West Baltimore — his posts are very different and fascinating.
At one point, Coates says:
I am an American and an Anglophone. With that tile I could, at any moment, make myself understood here. It takes a particular kind of tyranny to demand access to everyone’s power, to everyone’s family reunion.
Which I found a rather interesting take on the unilingual, Anglo-American mindset. Although the more I’ve traveled, the more I have seen it exhibited by other cultures, too — by the Chinese, Spanish, Russians, Koreans, Germans, and even the French.
I first traveled to the United States when I was 18, and that was odd enough. But that was still the same language, food, and TV shows, for the most part. My first trip to France occurred when I was around 23 (and still very much an immature dork), and I probably had many of the same reactions Coates had to Paris. You get amazed by all the cool stuff, you walk around to the parks and museums, you wish your French was better, you get hit by bouts of profound loneliness, you are constantly overwhelmed by the experience.
By the time I was 25, I finally made it to Korea, where I got to experience the new-traveler sensations all over again. But it was also different. Korea was a lot different than France or anywhere in western Europe. But it was not my first time traveling anymore, so I had grown a little more comfortable at being uncomfortable (a very important part of becoming a grown-up, imho).
My first week in Korea felt like a year, at least. It was like this vast information dump was hitting my brain, so all the neurons were firing, slowing down time in the process. The first month felt nearly as long again, as I slowly began to figure out this totally different country. And the whole first year, it was much the same process. About six months in, I met someone who had been living in Korea for four years, and he might as well have said he had been living under a polar ice cap — I just could not imagine it. (Granted, this was a smaller city in Korea, not Seoul, and this guy lived outside that town in the countryside … and it was the mid-1990s).
By the second year in Korea, I had settled in and was normalizing my life there, and my two-year anniversary came and went without my even realizing it for a couple of weeks. Next thing you know, you’ve been there a decade.
Even as I was living in Korea, I made a point of traveling as much as I could, going to China, Mongolia, Japan, and many of the other typical places one travels. With each trip, I could feel the sense of overwhelming ease off. I mean, it is still a bit disorienting going to a new place for the first time, but you get used to it. You get more comfortable at being uncomfortable.
Now, many years later, I find myself back in Europe. Things go wrong, communication breaks down, and I try not to let it bother me. I try to enjoy the good stuff and take the hiccups in stride. Of course, I am not traveling by myself anymore, which makes a big difference, too. In my 20s and early 30s, I always traveled alone, which can be more alienating and strange, but it also exposes the neurons to the full force of a new locale and new people. Traveling with a spouse is better, but you always feel a bit more distant from the places you visit … like you are taking a small, two-person country with you at all times. Instead of the tyranny of demanding access to everyone else’s family reunions, you are a family of your own, and now you man the gates and keep out interlopers.
We’ll be heading back to Asia soon — to Southeast Asia instead of Korea — and I’m looking forward to the whole experience all over again. I’m sure there will be some more hiccups, but nothing too bad. I doubt we’ll be feeling overwhelmed by the culture shock or food or anything like that again. I’m pretty comfortable at being uncomfortable. But sometimes I wish I wasn’t.