06/11/2015 03:47 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2016

The Challenge of Travel

I'm back in my homeland: rural India, barely clinging to my seat in the back of a jeep negotiating the terrain of potholes called a road in this country. I cautiously peer out the side taking in the blur of browned homes and people littered along the side of the street. My eyes slowly scanned the dirt sidewalks and suddenly paused --

A scrawny little boy was squatting at the edge of the road and chatting with his similarly characterized friend--while he took a dump. Having been to India many a time, I thought I'd grown used to the phenomena of road-side sh!tting, but I was nevertheless taken aback by this new sight. How could an entire population of people be so unhygienic, so obsolete--so uncivilized?


Who am I to determine who is civilized and who is barbaric? Why is it in any way rational to give such unfounded importance to the entirely natural and human process of having a bowel movement?

Seldom when we travel do we remember to make such considerations. As citizens of a neoliberal world, we often believe in the values of Western culture as absolute and universally correct. Yet, the entire purpose of travelling is to challenges one's own ideas and to learn of different cultures: both the good and the bad.

* * *

The principle I'm driving at is the oft-repeated, seldom-implemented banality, "Open your mind." I am writing this on the return flight from a 3-week trip to China with a group of students, where despite my own East Asian heritage, I experienced significant "culture shock." I found it easy to appreciate the more domestic aspects of Han Chinese culture: the communal nature of eating, the emphasis on history and heritage; observing the elements of a new culture that are condoned by our own belief system is easy.

Yet often, I felt like the defiantly-American tourist--refusing to eat traditional delicacies like cow fat and chicken feet, avoiding street food and free water, and generally hiding in a bubble of my travel buddies, rather than exposing myself to the raw environment around me. Other times, I was surprised my own gut reactions to sudden stimuli: my PSA-conditioned disgust with the amount of cigarettes being smoked, my acute annoyance at the shrill, bickering voices at the market, my revulsion toward a mere fly in my noodles.

Our professor, Dr. Laura Popova, required us to read a piece written by Ruth Benedict describing the importance of ethical relativism in anthropology: it is essential to put aside one's own beliefs and avoid disrupting a foreign environment to truly travel in it as an observer. I would contend that in a broader sense, it is important to do the same in traveling. Yes, we must observe certain precautions in the name of our own health, but why not sacrifice a temporary digestive upset for the authentic experience of sharing horse meat with a man chugging baiju in the village market (been there, done that). What we consider health necessities are mere trivialities to locals; their guts are used to the challenges of street food--so let's toughen up.

After that reading I spent a lot of time trying to immerse myself in local culture. The challenge of travelling is to put aside one's own comfort zone and norms. Having stripped away our own inhibitions and safeguards, we can then see how large the world is and how small we are, letting the universe--in its largeness--leave deep marks on our exposed soul. Let me condense this rather superfluous remark into an example of such an experience.

I grabbed a cigar on late night in Anshun and approached the first man I saw on the street. Sitting on a wood box next to a stranger on an empty street corner with the unfamiliar blunt in hand, I was far from where I expected to find myself, but I went ahead and struck up conversation with the man.

We shared the cigar and in turn, he offered me some of his food and drink (repeatedly, despite my emphatically declining the latter). Over the course of a conversation consisting of broken Mandarin, dramatic hand signals and hearty coughing, I came to understand the real meaning of Chinese hospitality: my meal had just been funded by a homeless construction worker who slept in the build he worked in.

For the rest of my trip, I'd find similar experiences popping up virtually every other day, mundane moments that suddenly become profound due to the shared connection between two very different people. A classmate and I shared the odd profoundness of trust and respect from village children with whom we played for hours 'til our legs were caked in dirt and our muscles ached. The drunken village chief hefted me into the air randomly while we danced to techno music at the farewell dinner. A friend and I wandered into a neighboring village and got a bunch of old men to talk to us by offering them cigarettes.

With each one of these experiences, I began to understand the Chinese people more as individuals--rather than relying on sweeping generalizations that made me feel like a wei guo ren (outsider). It would be absurd to say that in three weeks I have understood such a large and diverse culture simply by visiting one village and two urban centers. However, I found that my experiences in China broadened my perspective of the world. In that sense, I'd argue that I've broken out of my circle of comfort amongst friends. There's now a small clan of Chinese people, from young children to old pipemakers, who'll recognize the skinny Indian guy with earrings and a wolf-ring (they were obsessed with it), and sit down with me and have a cup of tea and a conversation.

There lies the essence of travel (and in a broader sense, humane politics, to quote Dr. Popova): local stories, global impacts. Let yourself be a sponge absorbing the information and stimuli around you, and soak in the knowledge until some of it stays. My flight just landed. Germany, here I come.