"So, what are people's reactions to your living-abroad stories?" a friend asked, waiting for hilarity to ensue. After spending the past few years living in a hotel in rural Italy, teaching English in a Malaysian fishing village, and interviewing strangers around London, I had more-than-a-few adventure tales up my sleeve. Surely, we both reasoned, the interest of everyone around me should be piqued.
It wasn't. It seems to be a common trend for those of us who have studied or lived abroad; we return changed people with a host of fascinating, bizarre stories, but our anecdotes never organically come up in conversation.
"How was [insert country name here]?" is a common question that begs for a brief answer. It never feels appropriate to begin unwinding the narrative of driving a public boat to a tropical island and swimming with an endangered turtle and no less than five sharks, and singing karaoke with a very kind family into the wee hours of the morning. It seems untimely to go on about how the men on the island spun fire, and the water was infused with bio-luminescence, and this tiny island was only a fragment of a chronicle of travel experiences, just a speck in an ocean of stories.
I don't know how to say, "I have stories I'd like to share with you," without being self-indulgent. And I suspect that those on the other end of the conversation don't know how to ask.
I don't know how to ask, either. Yes, I want to talk about my travels, but I also want to listen to the travels of my friends and peers. I want to create a climate in which travel-talk is welcome from both sides. Hence the following five questions to ask about a friend's experience abroad. Because we all should be hearing those stories that transformed us, shocked us and turned each of our worlds upside down.
5 Questions to Ask about a Friend's Experience Abroad
1. "What made you want to go there?"
Whether this traveler has gone to a spot that you can't even place on a map, or to one of the world's most-traveled cities, there is often a compelling reason behind the choice. Hearing it will shed light both on the destination and the traveler.
2. "Is [this very common stereotype about this place] true?"
Sometimes we're totally off-base about what we assume about other countries. Other times, though, we're right on the money, and those assumptions-come-true can often yield hilarious moments.
3. "What was your favorite food there? What was the common favorite food?"
Did you know Malaysians are crazy about fried chicken? That Peruvians love pasta and potatoes? Food can lead to a lot of insight about a place, and might even add a new destination to your bucket list. It can also help deconstruct some of your preconceptions now so you don't have to worry about disappointment after you arrive.
4. "What was the hardest adjustment you had to make?"
It might be that your friend had to travel without a hairdryer. But, more likely, it was having to redefine racism as we know it, or battle gender stereotypes, or learn to discuss religion/politics tactfully on the fly. There are real lessons to be learned from travel beyond breaking in those newest hiking boots, and we all have something to learn from them.
5. "What was one of the best moments of your trip?"
Even people who have been away for long stretches of time have moments that stand out to them. It's hard to forget that time you looked King Tut's tomb in the eye, or mastered a traditional dance, or made it to the top of a volcano despite sweltering heat. While it isn't at all hard to recall these instances, the problem is pinpointing just one in the enormous wealth that is travel.