Most of these posts are inspired by conversations I’ve had with other people, and this one is no exception. In fact, this post is inspired by dozens of conversations and interactions I’ve had. Have you ever walked into or out from a place and you just know you stand out? I don’t mind this feeling, although I’m no stranger to it.
I got off a bus in Chile 2 years ago, and the station did not have available Wifi. I was ill-prepared, was on hour 21 of travel, and was not completely sure how I was going to reach my destination. Back in the Santiago public transport station, it had taken me over an hour to find the buses outside and around waaaay in the back through a public market despite having asked for directions and guidance 2-3 times.
Anyway, I’m in a little store and I ask the woman if I can use her phone. I don’t know what was more desperate about me, the circles under my eyes or my grammatically incorrect sentence. I got in touch with who I needed to, and he told me to meet him in the parking lot behind the station. The station was not very big. I wandered back and forth trying to find the area that resembled the description.
A man on his cigarette break asked if her could help me and essentially agreed to playing charades with me. At one point he called his friend over and the three of us were floating in the void between languages. Suddenly I remembered a word to include, “después,” and we all celebrated the moment of clarity. Immediately the man knew where I needed to go and lead me there. All it took was one more word! I’ll never forget that victory, especially after an otherwise challenging day.
It’s not good for my progress, but somewhere inside me I’ve decided I’m hopelessly monolingual. I’ve mentioned this in 6 Ways to Learn a Language on Your Own. Those 6 ways really have done a lot for me, but maybe it’s staying committed to it that is trouble. My anxiety blocks my ability to speak and listen as well as I could, and I think too carefully about my word choice in English never mind Spanish. Overthinking often breaks the flow and confidence I need in order for optimal effectiveness. I know, these are excuses! I’m working on it! I think being multilingual has historically been undervalued in the US.
More often than not I’m ashamed I cannot communicate better in the global community. However, I’ve also experienced some beauty in it, what it’s like to dwell between words. Sitting at tables in Brazil and Chile where I’m barely following the vibrant conversations, or making deep eye contact with a Balinese person who smiles like they really know you, there’s a moment of white space and understanding that comes outside the realm of words. You can learn so much through body language, feeling, and observation. Of course it’s not completely practical, but I am continuously amazed by the depth of human connection.
Anywhere you go, not all of your interactions are going to be great experiences and result in established relationships. That expectation is simply not realistic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be open to the potential that comes from all interactions. Expect that every one is a learning opportunity. Surely many of us have had regrets about what we could have said or shouldn’t have said. That conversation just made another one better.
I find the best place to have conversations with people who are at once similar and vastly different is staying at hostels. Hotels, maybe, but they’re much more private. Hostels involve having anywhere from 4-18 roommates. They’re not for everyone, though I’m sure you can imagine good stories usually come from the experience. It’s all about the “vibes.” They’re full of nomadic people who are ready for anything. It’s great to keep up with people you’ve met who are still traveling because you can help each other out or cross paths again.
I’ve made friends in hostels who have hosted me in their homes! I reached out to a friend I met in a Moroccan hostel to see if he had suggestions for my stay in Alaska, and I was invited to his family’s home in Anchorage! So much greatness comes from travel connections. As if personality combinations weren’t enough, add various cultures. I’ve noticed over time how I’m received in different international settings. I’m reminded that my identity is not only what I look like and how I express my personality. Each time I lay down my luggage in a new place, the baggage I carry is much more complex.
In my travel experiences I grapple with what it means to be an American. Undoubtably this is a privilege. To travel and feel like an outcast ultimately by choice is a privilege. While some people have been warm, welcoming, and even ecstatic about my nationality upon meeting me, there are countless times people have openly dismissed me as an American or have happily mentioned that I’d somehow “proven them wrong” about their initial expectations.
Americans carry pretty straight forward qualities: loud, talkative, rich, entitled, obnoxious, vain, sexually “easy,” can’t hold their alcohol, friendly, nasally, oblivious/socially unaware, etc. This is actual, consistent feedback! Needless to say, those aren’t my top picks for the way I want to be seen or remembered. Now not everyone thinks this way just as not everyone holds the expected qualities.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of control over the way our cultures are stereotyped and generalized. I try to conduct myself how I want to be represented, but if those are still all they see, then they don’t really know me (and there’s a slim chance we’ll ever meet again anyway). Despite my desire to counter those qualities, I find humility, awareness, and genuine interest in others to be well-received most places. You don’t have to mute or change your personality, it’s more like sharing the spotlight and accentuating your best angles. Listen and ask people about themselves in a way that is not based on what you are expecting to hear.
For some of us, we are constantly reminded of the stereotypes we hold, but sometimes the extra baggage isn’t apparent until we open our mouths and start speaking. I’m embarrassed to admit that there have been times when I’ve lied and said I’m Canadian (ironically, people have guessed this first claiming my accent suggests it). It’s almost easier, Canadians seem to be more well-liked around the world, and they seem to slip more under the radar. A cleaner reputation is kind of appealing! I know lots of fellow Americans who have done this. It’s actually sad that it’s fairly common to play Canadian. It’s not that I have no pride in my country or don’t feel grateful for what it means to have been born and raised American.
I haven’t reflected deeply enough to determine the real reasoning behind it other than to remove some flashiness so other self-parts can be seen instead. I know the ability to momentarily take it away is among the most prestigious privilege a person can have. Truly, I think part of the issue for me is that I know many Americans who unapologetically flash the “classic” qualities and other nations have clearly noticed. My rejection of the qualities could be because I don’t want to be them; it could also be that to exemplify some of those qualities might even potentially be dangerous to me as a young, single woman traveling (often solo). Excuses again, but I suppose this is a result of recognizing the sort of baggage we carry with every identity in every situation.
How carefully do we need to choose when to feel pride versus humility? What is it like to connect and communicate with people from around the world? What is it that we’re really bringing to these conversations and how might that impact the interaction?
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