Photo: Stéfan

Real travelers don’t eat at McDonald’s. They grub on local delicacies at dirty tuck-aways, uncover worldly truths under the influence of homebrewed liquor, and rack up serious traveling cred in the process. They don’t eat at Pizza Hut, they don’t buy from Starbucks, and they most definitely do not frequent KFC.

I enjoy exploring culinary frontiers around the world, but I’ve also eaten at McDonald’s abroad. So to all the “real” travelers out there, what does that make me?

On Tuanjiahu Lu, where I lived in Beijing, I bought an ice cream cone from a KFC down the street almost every evening for nearly three months. I was on a first-name basis with the regular cashier (she even stopped shoving the English picture menu at me after two months). The interaction consisted of meaningful eye contact, exact change, and an oftentimes generous swirl of manufactured frozen non-dairy. It was a habit that bordered on obsession, but they were tiny cones of joy in the humidity of summer.

When I once admitted my daily KFC routine to another traveler, he took that as permission to lecture me on the importance of integration. From him, I “learned” that I should be traveling more vibrantly, experiencing foreign lifestyles more authentically, and rejecting anything that was not representative of local culture.

In the States, I never go to KFC. My stint with Colonel Sanders in China was an entirely new exposure, led by a love of sugar. Most other times, I did eat local food, experiment with Beijing flavor, and experience the various visceral reactions brought on by ingesting what I still refer to as pork skin Jell-O. I felt worse having to make these claims in my defense than admitting to the alleged travel crime. When all was said and done, I just wanted a damn ice cream cone in a land of little dairy.

I had only just met this guy. He had no real notion of my travel habits, nor I of his. And still, there we were: me the ignorant traveler, and him tsk-ing his disapproval. What might have bonded us — our concurrent time, location, and questing — was actually dividing us.

During my travels, I found this to be a common interaction. I witnessed similar standoff experiences frequently, both as a participant and in observation. Whether others had traveled longer, farther, harder. And yet instead of sharing diplomatically, many appeared almost aggressive in voicing the validity of their own experience and assumptions in comparison to another’s.

It seemed to boil down to the belief that one traveler’s knowledge, experience, or opinion could supersede another. What I heard from others was, “you’re doing it wrong.”

This kind of travel bullying promotes negativity, which seems to go against what many of us aspire to find: exposure to and acceptance of different cultures and societies. Real travelers don’t eat at McDonald’s, and other such snap judgments, don’t play fairly with the endless forms of exploration and travel. People who are traveling are travelers, in the purest sense of the word. Where an individual begins and where they will end up aren’t always obvious in brief interactions at hostels or train stations.

So much more can be learned by taking the time to listen to and acknowledge individual experiences rather than queuing up for combat. As you want your own adventures appreciated and accepted, appreciate and accept others’. Strive for kindness. Other travelers have incredible stories to share; be a positive, and you may contribute to them.

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