We all know of Rick Steves from his PBS shows or travel guides (and don’t forget those ubiquitous khaki pants). Dorky or not, I love his books and when Cody and I first dipped our toes in the travel pool Rick was our guide.
A couple of years ago I read his book Travel as a Political Act and it showed me how there is so much more to traveling than art and eating. Consciously experiencing different cultures challenges you to examine your beliefs and helps you become a more well-rounded person.
Reading the book again while on vacation over the holidays, I saw it’s value from a different perspective. It helped me better understand my current feelings toward my home country and as an expat myself, I think would be a great resource for those facing the same life change.
Travel Challenges our Perceptions and Fears
I think many people hold the view that “traveling” and “vacationing” are two different things. Steves is no different. He explains the difference as this: we can choose a controlled environment, like a resort or cruise (which he does not criticize) or we can try new experiences that get us out our comfort zone and show a new way of looking at things. Basically, the resort type vacation creates a divide between the tourists and locals, while travel brings the two groups together. Steves describes many benefits of traveling but—in my opinion—the two most important are the challenge to our perceptions and to fear.
I mention on our about page that my first real trip outside of the U.S. was a visit to Italy. During the trip, I remember noticing things like everything was so small and that the waiter took forever with the bill. On the other hand, I also noticed many similarities with my home. When we came back, it was hard not to notice the unnecessary excess (in both space and things) we have in the U.S. Travel allows you observe other cultures and there is great value in bringing these ideas home and putting them into practice. Steves puts it perfectly by saying:
“Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that is just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.”
Another quote that really hit home is that “its all too easy to mistake fear for actual danger.” From the perspective of someone who grew up in the U.S., the idea that the world is a scary place was normal. If you don’t challenge them, these ideas will creep in and make themselves at home.
They popped up seemingly out of nowhere when Cody and I traveled to Egypt. Our cab driver dropped us on the wrong street and there we were with no map, no knowledge of the language, and no WI-FI. Since we were obviously foreigners and lost, someone approached us speaking English and offering to help. Our initial reaction to this kind stranger was one of skepticism and fear. He walked us to our hostel a couple of streets over and simply gave us his card and said if we wanted a tour of the pyramids or other sights, he had a business and please give him a call. The rest of our trip was peppered with similar stories and the emotions we experienced as our perceptions of the world were shattered is something that we reflect upon often.
Cultural Sensitivity for Future Expats
If you are facing an expat assignment for the first time, I highly recommend you read this book. Steves has an interesting way of looking at other cultures and his perspective prepared me to adapt to my new home. Weaved throughout Steves’ travel stories is a thread of cultural sensitivity that will help you move quickly through certain stages of culture shock. It sounds simple, but cultural sensitivity—being aware that differences and similarities exist between cultures and impact values and behavior—is a pretty big concept to grasp.
For instance, when an elderly woman cuts in front of me in line, my knee-jerk reaction is to think of her as rude. However, that is my perspective as someone who grew up in the U.S. In Bogotá, many businesses have special lines for elderly, pregnant, or handicapped customers to give them priority service. This behavior is common everywhere else too, even if there is no special line. My idea of rude is someone else’s idea of respectful.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is no “check-list” that can completely prepare you for integrating yourself into a new culture. However, simply reading this book helped me examine my own prejudices and made me pause to think about why I believe what I believe. It’s a gentle and entertaining lesson on buffering the edges of your own cultural norms and loosening the grip on your definition of normal.
There is no “One Size Fits All”
As Cody and I inched toward moving abroad, we talked a lot with friends and family. Inevitably, the reasoning behind our desire was a common topic of discussion. Looking back at this time and some of our fervent opinions, I am sure we stepped on toes.
Steves’ discussion of his appreciation for the U.S. while at the same time loving Europe and other parts of the world was eye opening for me because I tend to be pretty black and white about, well everything. He says that while he considers the U.S. his home and has no desire to live abroad, the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas and we can learn from the actions of others. I like his idea that critically examining the status quo isn’t America-bashing, it’s being a good citizen.
Another idea I loved is that there is no right or wrong/good or bad. The “American Dream” isn’t the dream, it’s simply one of many. The higher tax rates and acceptance of a more socialist government in Europe aren’t wrong, it’s just another way to do things.
This is definitely a political book but each example or point is tempered with acknowledgments of the lurking problems, missteps, and imperfections in each idea. For me, this was hugely important and a great example of how to express your opinion gently and (hopefully) without alienating others.