Separate spheres. All photos by Irargerich

Being foreign is a revelatory experience, but not all travelers are able to return home.

Last week my section of Cathay Pacific flight 882 from Hong Kong to Los Angeles was full of refugees from Myanmar, a nervous group of 39 men, women and children bundled up in winter coats, each clutching a plastic bag emblazoned with the logo of the International Organization for Migration.

During the long flight, the man next to me – an ethnic Chin – struggled with his in-flight entertainment system. Finally, he got a movie to play – a Beverly Hills 90210 sort of film, featuring wide-eyed blonds flirting with country club pool-boys and shopping on Rodeo Drive.

Fractured clouds

Watching the man watch an idealized vision of America as we cruised over the Aleutians, I thought about the the transition he would face adapting to life in the real America. How would he reconcile the gaps between expectations and reality?

He didn’t speak any English. He was going to the state of Washington.

No matter how well this particular Chin refugee dealt with the transition to life in America, he would have to adjust to being a foreigner in an unrelentingly foreign culture and environment.

The concept of ‘being foreign’ is central to the experience of travel, but mainstream travel media rarely seems to address it head on. The British magazine The Economist recently published a thoughtful meditation on being foreign. One line was especially resonant for me, as I thought about the refugees, exiles in a foreign land:

For the real exile, foreignness is not an adventure but a test of endurance.

We voluntary travelers are so fortunate, in so many ways.

Community Connection

For a look at the challenges the refugees overcame before getting on the plane to America, check out the article Waiting For Life to Begin in a Burmese Refugee Camp.

Clearly, refugees need a lot of support here in the States. Does anyone know how to help out? What nationalities are being resettled in your area? Please leave a comment below!