I GREW UP IN A SHELTERED, devout Christian (mostly on Sunday mornings), white-as-white-can-be suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My childhood travels consisted of standing in 95 degree temps for three hours to get on the new roller coaster at Cedar Point, stuffing myself with fudge at Mackinac Island, and if I was lucky, a weekend trip to Chicago (never venturing far from Lakeshore Drive, of course).
My parents traveled in the way that fit their means and in the way that felt comfortable for them. What I was never able to articulate well as a child was that I did not want comfortable.
Some core part of me wanted to be shaken up. Everything about my superficial surroundings screamed ‘comfortable,’ but I’m almost embarrassed to admit the things that made me uncomfortable back then. I went to a high school that had almost 2000 students, and only two black people (administrators quickly kicked one out due to ‘suspected gang-related activity’, aka ‘you’re a black male and we don’t like your kind here.’ I never had a black friend growing up. Hell, I never even had a proper conversation with a black person until I was in my 20s. I saw them as black first, something insurmountably different from me, not simply as another human being. I projected stereotypes onto them without even being aware of it. They intimidated me and I wasn’t even clear about why.
My personal hangups went beyond color. My family was very middle class within a pretty wealthy community. My dad was a truck driver, my mom worked at a bank, while all of my friends’ parents were doctors, lawyers, or fancy accountants who went to work in tailored suits. I felt uncomfortable going to some houses for a sleepover because I didn’t want my friends to figure out I was a poser in their world. Something as simple as one friend’s well-manicured mom cheerily toasting fresh bagels with fancy cream cheese for breakfast made me all too aware that I was more of a ‘Lucky Charms while watching cartoons alone’ kind of girl, and for some reason I felt we had to stay within our own worlds.
That nice, safe little bubble that felt suffocating to grow up in — I later conscientiously wanted to burst it to smithereens. I wanted a queasy stomach if that meant I had tried foods beyond tuna casserole and breaded chicken. I wanted desperately to feel exotic, to not be one more blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl in a sea of them. I wanted to experience adrenaline, a word that completely attracted me even though I had a limited understanding of what it meant. I wanted to question peoples’ experiences and cultures. I wanted people to question mine. I wanted to get far out of my comfort zone and take an honest look at all of the endless ways I was ignorant about other cultures, economic classes, and religions.
I had big plans of travel after high school, most involving heading to Prague to read and drink coffee in charming cafes and fall in love with a foreign guy who spoke no English. Instead, at 18 I met a very suburban, very white Michigander, went to college, married, and had kids young. I ended up with a minivan and a white picket fence, the whole shebang. My life was an unoriginal repeat of my parents, my neighbors, except we were making more money that what I had grown up with. I was raising my young kids in a sparkly, privileged bubble and I hated myself for it.
Whereas other parents in my community sent their kids to piano lessons, I began to attempt to immerse mine in other cultures. Lamely and superficially. By that I mean we ate at Indian and Ethiopian restaurants. We took a ‘field trip’ to the Mexican supermarket. I volunteered tutoring refugees and invited one to come play with the kids for an afternoon. It was ‘safe cultural contact within the privileged bubble.’ My kids and I were still on the inside looking out, still holding tight to the belief that we were somehow better than everyone else who was different than we were. But we were ‘trying’ and that somehow made me feel good as a parent for a second.
A spontaneous (and by that, I mean I basically freaked out one night and booked the trip that made me the most nervous) mommy-daughter adventure to the Amazon when my daughters were four and six marked the first bursting of that bubble. We first hit up Cusco, and my same daughters who were used to their own bathrooms, walk-in closets, and a tennis court at home found themselves sleeping in an ultra-sketchy hostel that cost $3 a night, with no heat, a cold-water shower and a bathroom that stayed constantly flooded. I personally hated every minute of it, but stuck it out until they stopped complaining and relaxed into it. This was education.
I then went on to lose all of my debit and credit cards, and we had to manage the last couple of weeks in Peru with no funds. It was the best thing that could have happened. We got on a boat into the Amazon and got taken in by a village. My kids were poked and prodded for being the only blonde people these natives had ever seen. A badly-stuffed real ocelot was their toy. They got their asses kicked at soccer even though they played on competitive club teams back home. They ate whatever was handed to them (minus piranha), because that was what there was if they didn’t want to starve. They saw how the kids there might not know advanced math or international geography, but they were schooling them in life skills. My kids would never again be able to think of these native people as unintelligent or incompetent — in the jungle, it was obvious that it was us gringos who didn’t have a clue how to even survive. But most importantly, the kiddos laughed with their new friends often. They connected genuinely and deeply with the locals, despite all of their obvious differences. When we returned back home, they began to see their privileged life with equal parts gratitude and disgust.
We’ve since gone on to travel quite a bit. They learned horsemanship (and what machismo really means) from gauchos in Argentina. They managed themselves with (some) grace at high tea among royalty at Alvear Palace. They made sand art with Tibetan monks and had their minds opened to the idea of reincarnation. They made friends with a girl from El Salvador who was sold into the sex-trade industry by her uncle and who rode on top trains to try to illegally enter the US…at age 7. They are as comfortable in a tent on the side of the road as they are in a five-star hotel. They have begun to see people as people. They are confident that anywhere they land in the world, they will be able to get their footing, make some new friends, and manage just fine.
I’m convinced that getting them out of their comfort zone early on, bursting their pretty little bubble they lived in, made it so they can now adapt more quickly to any situation, they can empathize more deeply and connect on a human level. It has made them more curious, has given them a sense of ease, a feeling that they could comfortably feel at home anywhere. I see them not categorizing situations or people nearly as cut and dry as I did as a kid: “this is normal,” “that is weird,” “this is comfortable”, “that is hardship.” For them, it can be as simple as “this is,” and an open-minded conversation can begin there.