Monday, November 28, 2011

Overthinking?



I truly believe in staying in one place for a long time, weeks at least, in order to get a real feel for it.  But, like many of you (I'm assuming...) it is the adrenaline of being new, being constantly surprised and stimulated, that drives me much of the time -- so I also want to be constantly on the move.

Some people call this the difference between the traveler and the tourist -- that travelers want to sink in, spend some time, learn the minutiae and everyday routines of a place, while tourists want the newness and excitement and sightseeing.  I'm not sure how I feel about that -- there is such a smugness against tourists so much of the time, and that smugness just makes me so frustrated because it reeks of an elitist attitude. "Oh, well, I'm backpacking in Malaysia for four months and staying with a local family.  But a few days in Paris is cool, I guess."  Blech.

Frankly, anyone pretending even months of living somewhere will make them an expert on somewhere is kidding themselves.  Human culture and relationships are way more complex than that.  This can be frustrating to realize, because it appears (follow me here), short of BEING from a culture, one can never understand it.  And since we all have our own cultures that we are a part of, and do understand, why then do we feel compelled to pick up and move to experience someone else's?

And yes, I have just circuitously disproved the validity of travel.  What can I say, I enjoy logical conundrums.

What do you think?  Do we gain more insight when we stay in a place longer?  Do you ever get discouraged by the "locked-out" feeling of being foreign?

2 comments :

  1. Well, the "locked-out" feeling of being foreign doesn't discourage me because I accept that I -am- foreign. But even so, I can learn a lot about the local conditions, culture, and just meeting and talking to local people, than I could ever learn or experience at home, so travel is still worth it.

    I think there's a difference between understanding a culture and experiencing a culture. There's a kind of knowledge that comes only with first-hand experience from childhood, and I think this is what you're referring to with your statement. But this kind of experience-knowledge is not intellectual, it's more subconscious. And I actually think it can be pretty limited because it's without a reference point. I mean, what do we really know about the things that we can't intellectualize, because we have never known anything else? If you go through life seeing only one color, what do you actually know about it? You think it's just light and shadow. You need to see different colors to appreciate the properties of the original.

    I think intellectual knowledge is open to all people who are curious and willing to put in the time. Foreigners who invest to become fluent in the local language, and live in a different place for years *while actively studying it* can understand a local culture. I've definitely seen journalists or academics with a focus on an applied field where local culture is a big factor (such as business consulting, health management) write effectively about cultures that were not their native culture, sometimes even having insights that native people who have only experienced their own culture did not have. They are actually advantaged as foreigners because they have a reference point for understanding. De Tocqueville- a Frenchman- wrote the first great treatise on American democracy. Similarly, people can learn more about their own cultures by learning about others'. But the main problem is that a lot of people who go to other countries, are lazy and don't spend their time efficiently. Journalists and academics don't fall into that trap because it's their job otherwise. But if you only make sporadic efforts to understand the local language and never become fluent, only follow the same routines every day, only talk to the same people, and generally don't make many friends with local people, then of course you could spend months or even years in a place, and still have huge blind spots all over the place.

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  2. I think this is really interesting -- the idea of even first-hand knowledge being limiting because it is without external references. Thank you so much for sharing this point of view!

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