Susan Conley’s China travel memoir The Foremost Good Fortune reminded me of an emotion we as travelers often feel, though we as travel writers don’t often write about: anger.
In Conley’s case, she has plenty to be angry about. While struggling to make sense of the complexities of her life as an expat mom of two rambunctious boys living in Beijing, where they’ve moved for her husband’s job, Conley is unexpectedly stricken with breast cancer. It’s a tough two years out of her life, and Conley unflinchingly shares them with her readers, warts and all.
For example, while touring the Great Wall with a friend visiting from home, Conley is confronted by a guard demanding money, about three bucks. Conley’s friend, a newcomer to China, wants to simply pay him and get out of there. But Conley, who’s lived in the country for a while, is ticked off because she senses she and her friend are being taken advantage of. She writes:
I’m angry now for all the times I haven’t had the right ticket in China. Or the correct permit. Or accurate directions. Or the perfect words. I scream more nonsense in Chinglish about how it’s not fair that we have to buy more tickets, [my friend] gets out her RMB notes and pays the man off, then leads me away by the hand. I’m crying, and I’m not sure why.
When I visited China, there were all sorts of things that made me angry: getting lost, a day of driving rain, an evening when I couldn’t find a decent place to get a meal. There were also graver sources of irritation. Specifically, I was traveling with an African-American man who became a constant object of fascination for locals. Wherever we went, Chinese people would stop and stare, point, even laugh. A few of them sneaked up behind him to get their picture taken with him.
My companion took much of the unwanted attention in graceful stride. I did not. Each time these things happened, I felt a futile welling up of fury, much like what Conley describes vividly in her memoir. What should I be doing in this situation? Whose fault is this really, if anyone’s? Why do I feel so helpless?
Travel anger is not a phenomenon unique to Conley or China. I remember cursing out the author of my Let’s Go in Florence when the book’s vaguely worded directions left me spinning in circles in the Piazza della Signoria.
In India, I felt ready to murder several members of the staff at my hotel in Agra after they refused to accommodate my request to change my room from the one I had — directly above the thumping dance floor of a raucous wedding going into the wee hours.
In Las Vegas, I went ballistic when I found out my taxi driver had charged me double the correct fare from the airport to my hotel.
Before we travel, we’re often warned to pack various medicines, to stash our money under our clothes, to avoid certain foods or tap water. But maybe we also ought to be warned of another danger: how ripe we are to feelings of frustration that can boil over to a soul-shattering rage. Travel strips us not only of our comforts but also the conventions that keep our most turbulent emotions in check. Sometimes that plunge into the unfamiliar can be a broadening experience, but at other times, it can inspire more instinctual, even animal emotions.
Perhaps the greatest danger we face when we’re not at home is ourselves.
At the end of the scene at the Great Wall, Conley writes, “Maybe I’m out of my mind for yelling about twenty Chinese RMB. What I would like to do is start over and leave as much of my anger as I can behind on this bridge.”
Yet it’s not always that easy to leave that anger behind. For me, my moments of travel anger have left me drained, embarrassed, yet also richer emotionally after I’d reflected upon them.
After all, it’s not like we can avoid the situation: At some point or other while you’re on a journey, a bit of travel anger is inevitable. It’s what we do with that anger afterward that counts. Do we write off the people and places we’ve visited as villains? Or do we dare to follow Conley’s example of putting our angry reactions while abroad under the microscope, to search for any cancerous cells we may have managed to avoid confronting while at home?