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An Open Letter to All the Arrogant First-Time Travelers Out There, From a Third Culture Kid

Culture Budget Travel
by Cecilia Haynes Jun 8, 2015

THIRD CULTURE KIDS LIKE ME HAVE BEEN TRAVELING FOR YEARS. We grew up across the world and spent a significant part of our lives brought up in a country outside of our parents’ culture(s). Many of us were privileged and have likely seen more of the world than most people will in their entire lives.

I was born in Hong Kong before moving to Calcutta (Kolkata), then to Taipei, Beijing, New Delhi, Northern Virginia, and Chennai — all before I graduated from high school in Manila at the age of 17. And I’m not even mentioning all the places that I visited as I lived in each country. By sheer opportunity alone, my traveling experience has been prodigious. At a young age, I learned how to be adaptable, I was immersed in a wide variety of cultures and practices. I was raised as a cultural chameleon and while there have been definite drawbacks — crippling depression and anxiety, not having a “home” — TCKs are true global nomads by virtue of our upbringing.

And that’s where my pet peeves come into play. I’m sorry and I get how ridiculously spoiled I am, but if I’m going to be honest, I get frustrated with a specific type of first-time traveler. Don’t get me wrong, there are many first- time travelers who are humble, grateful, and excited. These are the folks ready and willing to embrace culture shock, differences in daily practices, and they’re open about their ignorance of the world. But there can also be a certain attitude of arrogant, spiritualist bullshit that makes me want to avoid first-time travelers altogether. Here’s why.

Your arrogance is suffocating.

One of the most irritating traits of the Douchey First-Time Traveler (DFTT) is feeling threatened whenever someone has traveled more than them. This usually manifests in you sharing a story of your enlightening, world-changing trip — all stated with a beatific smile. When someone follows up with another story, you sneer, ignore it, and change the subject back to your own travels. I cannot convey enough how mind-numbingly frustrating this particular behavior is. You do not own travel and you do not have a monopoly on awesome experiences. Get over it.

You turn travel into a pissing contest.

A common first experience of a DFTT is voluntourism. You have paid a company to help some poor helpless folk in a “third world” country and have returned home majestic in your savior-ness. You bust this story out at parties and bask in the adoration, up until someone else offers up their recent volunteering escapade (let’s be real, every high schooler and their mother has gone on a “voluntour”). This is when you counter with how much more dire your volunteer experience was, how teaching underprivileged children in Haiti changed your life, and the crazy shenanigans you and your fellow volunteers got up to.

The story-topper is inevitably more extreme and/or life-changing and profound. Although I am guilty of this pet peeve, I actively try to squelch the impulse, while DFTTs blithely carry on unaware and uncaring.

Your “I know more than you do” attitude is the worst.

I get that you are excited about being in a new place. I really, really understand that you want to feel like you are comfortable by showing how much you have picked up of the local culture. I’m thrilled you bought a new salwar kameez and started wearing a bindi. I applaud your chopstick skills and your ability to order one, single dish in Cantonese. But if you try to tell me more about a place that I have lived in longer than you by months and years, just stop. Knowing one coffee shop that I have never been to does not and will never make you an expert in this place. Let it go.

You are so painfully unprepared and irresponsible.

I’m the most forgiving of this flaw, but it does drive me insane. When a TCK travels with someone who has never traveled before, it can get super frustrating to have to make sure they have everything in order. Forgotten passports, lost tickets, completely useless clothing, the list goes on. Obviously this can also apply to a veteran traveler who is just very careless, but DFTTs of this ilk tend to not know what they will or will not need in any given situation and then get super upset about not having whatever they forgot. You don’t need that specific brand of shampoo. Just make do with whatever you find at the local store.

You’re so finicky about food.

What people eat in their homes and home countries is never going to be familiar to you. It will likely smell, look, and taste extremely odd and unusual. That’s where you grit your teeth, smile, and choke it down while asking for seconds. It’s the polite thing to do. If you end up in the Philippines with a serving of balut in front of you, then you need to drizzle some salt on that duck embryo and send it straight down your gullet. Take tiny sips of yak butter tea while in Tibetan regions, in the hopes that your hosts won’t keep topping up your mug. Never, ever, roll your eyes and close your nose when presented with a durian dessert lovingly prepared for you in Hong Kong.

Unless you have a genuine dietary restriction that will result in something horrific, learn to suppress that gag reflex. Feel free to turn down food only if the aftermath is dire. Or, at the very least, learn to lie effectively so you will escape uncomfortable meals with dignity and respect.

You think every far away place is dangerous.

First-time travelers can be very inhibited. Maybe it’s not your fault, but it can result in a lot of missed opportunities. Being fearful and uncertain is such an obstacle to experiencing the wider world. Media outlets love to portray any place foreign as a dangerous war zone. When I was living in Turkey, there were some serious riots, but no more so than had happened in the US during the Occupy Movement. And where I lived in Alanya, a town in the south, there was only a peaceful protest of five people. Yet there were articles upon articles of violence and destruction that implied that the entire country had fallen into chaos. Things are rarely as bad as they seem through the distortion of the media.

I’m not interested in your “Spiritual Awakening.”

It’s so irritating to deal with you after you’ve “found yourself.” It becomes a matter of usurping the local culture to suit whatever crisis is going on in your life. Taken to an extreme, the Spiritually Awakened DFTT will claim to know more about the local culture and religion than the actual locals or people who are part of that heritage. Mastering downward facing dog in an ashram does not make you a Brahmin.

You need to quit it with the “Noble Savage Mentality.”

This is when you experience one new culture and then become convinced that the locals are pure and untainted human beings of perfection who have otherwise been corrupted by western technology and ideals. Then you go on to defend, in the most voracious and aggressive manner, these “helpless” locals who are infantilized by this behavior. Some Tibetan Buddhist converts are especially zealous — convinced that Tibetans don’t curse or swear. It’s demeaning and racist, so stop it.

And even after leaving your home, you’re still so close-minded.

While most people travel to broaden their horizons and try new things, there are certain DFTTs who travel to reconfirm their own biases and beliefs — those of you who refuse to try yak steak or pork sisig (chopped up bits of a pig’s face and ears with chicken liver) because you’re convinced you’ll hate it. You supposedly know your likes and dislikes so well that there’s no point in experimenting. You’re the type who never leaves your resort and are firmly planted by the hotel pool with a cocktail in hand with no intention of leaving your cultural bubble. You are the DFTT that pays a boatload to travel to a foreign country, yet never see anything local other than the hotel staff. Challenge yourself.

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