I have been away from my home on the Big Island of Hawaii for 10 years. Since then I have lived and traveled through 38 different countries. At various times during this travel, I’ve been guilty of short-sightedness and bigotry, of arrogantly imposing my cultural baggage on others. Each time, the host culture has done its best to slap me in the face with humility, but I still cringe at the memories of my behavior. And when I travel these days, I think more before I speak. There’s nothing like travel to open your eyes into realizing that one shouldn’t be too quick to judge others. Here are four moments when I was completely humbled by travel.
When I was a teenager, I won a scholarship to study at a Japanese high school. I was excited to practice the language I’d been learning at school, but the new environment of a foreign country, coupled with my inexperience in an academic setting — I’d been home-schooled most of my life — was overwhelming.
I was sent to a girls’ school in Shinagawa, Tokyo, and there were all sorts of customs I wasn’t used to. I had to wear a tie and a pleated skirt. I had to attend classes on Saturdays, participate in morning role call, and ask to use the bathroom — which, as a former homeschooler, was weird. Sometimes I had to stay at school as late as 7 p.m.
At 17 years old, I was rebellious, at least for a country girl from Hawaii. I’d constantly play the “dumb foreigner” card and feign ignorance instead of trying to adjust. I would show up late to class, skip P.E., refuse to wear the tie. Once, I remember wearing a scarf to school. When one of the instructors told me to take it off, I understood him perfectly, but I played stupid anyway until a classmate repeated his request in English. I wasn’t used to all of the rules and the lack of freedom that came with being a young student in Japan.
Then, halfway through the semester, there was a special tennis class on the roof. I was walking with a couple of other foreign exchange students, but we were making our way there slowly, stopping on the way to grab a drink from the vending machine. We showed up ten minutes late to the class.
When we finally arrived, we saw a tense scene: a group of Japanese students, heads bowed, standing across from the gym teacher. The atmosphere was quiet and strained. We took our places quickly in a small group to the left. The tennis coach started to speak. His voice was stern, his forehead folded into dark creases and he was throwing angry glances at the Japanese students. It was clear that he was berating them for something, but I didn’t understand what. Later, I asked one of the fluent English-speaking students why he had been scolding them. She said that it had been because we, the foreigners, were late.
“Well, that’s not really fair,” I replied.
“But don’t you see?” She said. “He didn’t start scolding until you came. He wanted you to see them being scolded.”
This hit me right in the stomach. The coach was speaking to the students but on a deeper, more real level, to us. It was his indirect way of communicating to us without any English. In this scenario, the Japanese students were responsible for our poor behavior, and he wanted us to know it. It struck me deeply. I had never considered how my actions had been affecting others. I wasn’t the rebellious hero in this story, I was a disruption and the cause of suffering for my fellow classmates. I felt, for the first time, like I was part of a team. And with that, I felt shame for disappointing my team. I realized that was the coach’s intention all along.
Several years later I traveled solo to Morocco during the winter. I was on my way to an exchange study. I had decided to wander around the country first before my studies started, and arrived in Tangiers by ferry. I clutched my guidebook to my chest, admiring all the city sketches that were drawn throughout it. A lot was said about Tangiers, how it was a port town and apparently an area where you could fall prey to the worst scams in the country. According to the book, Tangiers was where you’d find the pickpocket, the shopkeeper who would violently push a handbag on you, the taxi driver who would yell at you until you got in the car, the carpet seller who would guilt-trip you into buying a rug. I was a bit skeptical about the guide book’s claims, and I didn’t come across any of them while I was there, but the warning remained in my head even when I made my way south.
Of course, it’s inevitable for travelers to pay more than locals in some countries, sometimes it’s even the law, but I felt righteous about it back then. I hated the feeling of someone trying to scam me and felt it was my right to pay what the locals paid.
A few weeks after I arrived in Morocco, it came time for me to head to my university. I was in the little and charming city of Meknes, trying to catch a grande taxi to Ifrane, where the university was located. A grande taxi is a car that will take you a relatively short distance from one town to another. Usually, the driver won’t leave without four or more passengers squished inside, regardless if they know each other or not.
I walked up to one of the drivers at the bus station and asked him how much he would charge to head to Meknes. I had memorized the amount the guidebook said I should pay, and that I should haggle until I got it. I balked at his asking price and accused him of overcharging. He looked at me without expression and shrugged. I went around asking a few more drivers, but the prices were all the same. I felt cheated. My heart started racing and I started to get angry. It was so much more than what the guidebook had said was reasonable.
How dare they take advantage of me just because I’m different! I thought.
So I opened up one of the car doors and asked the two young Moroccans in the back how much they were paying. It was the exact same price. This stopped me in my tracks. I guess not all Moroccan taxi drivers were out to cheat me. Who knew? Since then, I’ve taken guide books with a grain of salt.
I’d been in Morocco for about a month at an American university in Ifrane. A lot of the classes were sub par to what I was used to in a college setting. There was no direction, the readings were unrelated to the lectures, and it didn’t help that many of the instructors didn’t speak English very well. I felt like I wasn’t learning anything, that I was investing a lot of time and money into a fruitless endeavor. In one particular class, a local history seminar, the professor just left in the middle of the course and was replaced with another professor who was even more disorganized and impossible to understand. This class consisted primarily of foreign exchange students — Americans, Canadians, Senegalese, Ivorians.
One day, I got so fed up that I left in the middle of the lecture. I stormed off to my laptop where I wrote a long rant on the impracticalities of the university’s academic system. A lot of my fellow classmates came up to me later saying they agreed with me, that they had wanted to follow me and walk out of the same class. I felt validated.
But my actions were put to shame the next day. I was chatting in the computer lab with one of the Senegalese students. We began to talk about travel, and how important it was for keeping an open perspective. I nodded along and vehemently agreed with my new friend. Some people were just ignorant, I said, puffed up with my own sense of righteousness.
Then the man continued to talk, in his low voice, about how some are too quick to judge, and that just because something is different doesn’t mean that it should be written off by elitists and bigots — a quick judgment is the sign of a closed mind. The realization crept up slowly, inching forward: he was talking about me.
After all those validations from my peers, it was a shock to realize I had been wrong. I was a hypocrite. I wasn’t the enlightened, multicultural traveler I dreamt I was. I was arrogant. Instead of trying to see the world around me for what it was, I had brought my own baggage and false expectations to Ifrane. It certainly humbled me, and I ended up deleting the rant.
In Uzbekistan, flocks of kids would come up to me on the street and ask for candy or pencils. I had been asked for food or money in different countries, but the pencil thing was new — maybe it was leftover from when the Peace Corps volunteers would wander around, handing out stacks and stacks of pencils. But I never carried pencils, so whenever the kids would ask, I’d hold out my hand and say, “Yes, pencil, thank you!” with a big smile.
This made the kids laugh, yelling, “No, no, pencil!”
One day, when I was checking out the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, three kids followed me. For some reason, they seemed really interested in me. They had these nuts in their hands and kept trying to offer me some. But I, thinking they wanted money, kept refusing. I ignored them for a while and went back to taking photos of the building. I was in the country for research and was focused on analyzing the mosque’s architecture.
The kids continued to follow me around and began to make clicking sounds, gesturing that I should take their picture. Again, I brushed them aside, assuming that they wanted money for a photo. (This had happened to me a few days before and I still felt sour about it.)
Eventually, two of the children left and there was just this little, big-eyed girl. I sat down on the grass and smiled at her. She hesitated, then quickly shoved the nuts in my hand, and ran off. She never asked for money. I felt, with some shame, that I missed my chance for a sincere connection. Maybe they had just wanted to share, had just wanted their photo taken. I’ll never know.