WHEN I FIRST arrived in Tokyo, I was sick, lost, and alone. I was also fifteen years old.
This was my first of many extended trips for work (I’m a model) and the decision to travel solo had been made at the last minute.
That evening, when I got off the bus in the wrong place after a severely delayed 13-hour flight, I had second thoughts, but ultimately traveling alone as a teenager turned out to be a seminal part of my youth.
Life in Tokyo was full of hurdles: navigating the subway, deciphering food labels and getting through the day without committing some grave faux pas. I was working, too, so rather than simply being a tourist, I actively participated in the society.
Working meant that on top of basic self-sufficiency I had to collaborate and communicate with Japanese colleagues. At an age when many can scarcely get to work at the Gap on time, I suddenly had to meet life’s challenges on my own.
Some travel skills I learned by trial and error, but overall I was surprised by my own competency. Travel quickly showed me just what, and how much, I was capable of doing by myself.
I became emotionally self-sufficient, too. A photographer once asked me if I missed my family, and when I replied that I did, he said “You love your family, but you need to learn to be at peace by yourself.”
At the time the comment bugged me – I didn’t want to be told how to feel. But later I realized that he was right. My homesickness never subsided, but I learned to accept that I missed my home and family, and move beyond that homesickness to become whole as an individual.
Open to Interpretation
At the same time, the vulnerability I felt being away from home for the first time made me hyper-aware of the fascinating new world around me.
I examined everything: objects, clothing, building, customs. The first thing I noticed was difference. Who knew there were so many ways to look at the same things?
I noticed that aesthetics are very important in Japan (everything from manhole covers to warning signs are made to be admired) and that almost no one wears hats.
Then I started to notice more subtle characteristics of the culture, like the avoidance of saying no: my Japanese acquaintances greatly preferred the term “maybe.” They also thanked people effusively for even the slightest favor.
I realized that everything from pace of life to social priorities to job preferences was open to interpretation.
A Global Classroom
I ran across few other Americans, but was surrounded by people from all other parts of the world, exposing me to even more alternative perspectives.
Conversations were speckled, if not centered on, comparisons of our home countries and native ways of doing things, be it sentence structure or the traditional age of marriage.
Not surprisingly, I learned a lot about the driver’s licenses, school systems, and age related legislation of various countries, and gained a whole new appreciation for the dominance of American entertainment, stores, and fads.
Following the promptings of my guidebook I frequently found myself in museums, and came to realize that I like art, in a way that has never resonated with me before. Away and alone, I strolled through the aisles, talking to no one and paying attention to nothing but the artwork. I settled into a quasi-meditative state of mind in which the artwork seemed to hit a raw nerve.
At the same time I was taking in large amounts of historical data. I absorbed the history of the Shoguns and became quite versed in the Meji Emperorship. I saw Kabuki performances, though I had no idea what the characters were saying, and visited countless shrines and temples.
Unfamiliarity and solitude are a great incubator for thought. With my new exposure to such a wide variety of outlooks I had to think about and question many things which had previously seemed concrete.
I was struck by differences in public policy; how come some countries have universal health care while others do not? Why is college astronomically expensive in the U.S.? Why are bike riding and letting children walk to school alone considered so dangerous in my native New York, while both are commonplace in Tokyo?
Japanese people seemed, overall, to be high achievers, placing a heavy emphasis on academic and professional success. Life was faster here than in the States, and busier too.
Noticing such difference led me to ask myself important questions:
- What is important to me?
- How do I want to live?
- Where do I belong?
I benefited from my youthfulness in that traveling didn’t just make me think, “Wow, there are so many ways of life out there.” Instead, experiencing foreign cultures while perched at the beginning of adulthood, everything I saw was still possible for me to apply to my own life.
All too often I hear older adults lamenting time spent on dead-end tracks to supposed success; traveling in my adolescence has shown me from the start the full range of what life has to offer.
The exposure to foreign cultures that I gained early on preempted my cultural biases and “us and them” thinking, and liberated me from the notion that there is only one right way of doing things.
Discover The World…And Yourself
Traveling is about discovery and finding oneself, for people of any age. But when you travel as a young person, you’re raw material, constantly being shaped, and all that you see, hear, and do has a profound impact on the rest of your life.
At my age, people like to say, you’re naive, not yet disillusioned about the world, and think that “because it feels right” is a suitable reason for action.
Well, what better attitude to maintain as you explore the world? We teens see the world as a limitless opportunity. When you travel, that’s the way it truly is.
Are the teenage years a good time to travel? Share your experiences and opinions by leaving a comment below!