Multiculturalism: Learning to Understand Other Cultures by Susan Dunn, MA Clinical Psychology, The EQ Coach
There’s an email circulating the Internet about the war entitled “Which War Are You Watching?-The View from Spain.” It appears to be from an individual. My version has it signed with “Un abrazo (a hug), Dwight.” (Dwight-if you exist-I give you credit.)
Talking about how the Spanish media presented the war, it is definitely a controversial piece, but what about the war wasn’t? “Deeply divided” applied to the US and many other countries, and as I talked with clients all over the world during this time, we all learned about one another, and about multiculturalism
Doesn’t apply here. Whether or not this incident occurred, we’ll never know. If it didn’t, it should have.LANGUAGE
One way we understand a culture is through its language. Here is an excerpt from this article, “The View from Spain”:
“In one particularly poignant moment on Spanish television, after a series of unrelenting images of children wounded and dead (far more graphic than would ever be allowed in the US), we were shown a Pentagon spokesperson referring to understandable levels of ‘collateral damage.’
“The Spanish commentator simply looked directly into the camera, shook his head sadly and mused: ‘One wonders what type of human being can refer to the death of a child as “collateral damage.”’
I have no defense of this statement. I abhor the language of the US military as much as this person does. I agree with him. And I have no idea what to do about it.
What kind of human being would refer to the death of a child as “collateral damage?”
The US military, that’s who. But not me, and maybe not you.
Intellectually I understand that if you’re going to send people out to kill other people, some of whom may be children, you have to use euphemisms.
A euphemism is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something.”
The military uses them. The military is also not “the US.”
HOW THEY TALK
I recall sitting in a board meeting being run by an ex-colonel during Desert Storm. Half of us were ex-military and half of us had never been near it - it was a social service agency, after all. That morning the director, an ex-colonel, had what can only be described as a sanctimonious expression, and in a very in-group tone of voice, with excluding nonverbal behavior, announced that there had been “an incident of friendly fire.”
Half of us in the room had no idea what he was talking about, and the sad thing is I don’t know whether he knew that (which would be bad) or didn’t (which was worse).
Two minutes later, the most ‘fierce conversations’ member in the out-group said, “Oh, you mean we shot down one of our own guys? That’s really stupid.”
Someone else added, “And tragic.”
I hope the more discriminating out there will understand that some of us despair at our own military with their reprehensible euphemisms such as calling killing children “collateral damage.”
The US military is a sub-culture within a larger culture.
THE COMMON GROUND
The letter continues: “The day the statue of Saddam was torn down, the great divide between America and the rest of the world was briefly suspended.”
There is the common ground.
Multiculturism demands that we use our empathy and intuition (emotional intelligence competencies) to understand the other point of view, that we seek the common ground, and also that we understand there are many cultures within any given culture.
I had a conversation with a client in Australia the other day who eventually blurted out in frustration, “We hate American buzz over here. The hype. It’s too pushy.”
Did she assume I didn’t?
And should I assume she speaks for all Australians?
And should I assume she hates Americans because she hates “American buzz?”
Yes, she assumed I didn’t, while in actuality I dislike it myself. No, I do not assume she speaks for all Australians. I don’t look at things that way. Nor do I make the grand and erroneous sweep to assume she hates Americans because she hates something that some Americans do.
Check out your assumptions and challenge those of the other. Look for the common ground. Treat people as unique individuals. Brush up on your global EQ. The world is shrinking and we need to learn how to get along.
General Web Directory - Dirbull ~ Article Details
Different Cultures Learning Styles
Date Added: April 06, 2010 05:04:50 AM
Category: Society & Culture
The word culture has been derived from the Latin word “cultura” which means to cultivate. Generally it refers to the manners, norms, values, knowledge, attitudes, art, habits and behavioral practices that are preferred and chosen as ideal by majority of the people of the society. With the encroachment and progress in the hi-tech world of today, different cultures across the globe have rapidly undergone the process of acculturation. Thus, learning of diverse cultures around the globe is not a big issue. There are various styles by which one can easily get versed with the multitude of cultures. Some of the styles are as follows.
Traditional Classrooms around the world
Another very popular and effective style of learning culture is the traditional classrooms around the world. Traditional classroom tends to favor cultural learning to its fullest. It is one of the best places where children can interact for a long duration and learn different regional cultural aspects with the passage of time. Interaction of children with children and teacher with children definitely promotes broadening of cultural patterns. These written and unwritten rules, which we call culture, consciously or unconsciously, affect people around us. Children being quick observers and imitators are swift in picking, absorbing and following various cultural traits and values. Thus, classroom either at primary, secondary or higher level plays a vital role in learning one’s own as well as other cultures prevailing around us.
Taboo of learning in world cultures
Every culture in every society observes certain taboos and manners. There are certain issues and topics that are considered forbidden in some cultures like restrictions on sexual activities and relationships, restriction on various diets, incest taboos, exposure of body parts, social-economic class, medical disorders and diseases, alcoholism, depression and divorce. Taboos vary from culture to culture; a taboo in one culture might not be a taboo in another. These taboos are learnt via culture and transmitted to generations.
Adapting in different societies
Adaptation level of culture and manners varies from society to society. There are various factors like education, technological advancements, public awareness, and values among the old generation that play their role in the adaptation of the culture. Researches have shown that technological advance societies have greater tendency to accept change and modifications as compared to the traditional backward societies.
The progress of classroom learning
Importance of the traditional classroom learning can never be ignored in any society, thus with the advancement in technology, teaching as well as learning has now become a trouble-free chore. Gone are the days when teachers just used to use simple black board for communication. Progress in the classroom learning can easily witnessed with the use of tools like multimedia, overhead projector, computer, audio and video tapes etc. Many Audio Visual aids are available to teachers so they can perform their job quite comfortably.
Well advanced students with technologies today
The amalgamation of Internet with the latest technological aids has played a vital role in enhancing the learning process among the students. Utilization of technology has no doubt drastically brought several changes in the learning of the individuals. Teleconferencing, virtual universities, online degrees and distance learning have very well equipped the students with latest tools and techniques. Moreover it provided the students with an opportunity to interact with a number of qualified teachers and students from within their homes. Several chat rooms, discussion forums are available in order to facilitate the students in broadening their views and thinking. We can safely say that well advanced students are equipped with latest technology today.
Understanding Other Cultures Has Broad Benefits
COLUMBIA, Mo. - Few people that Puncky Heppner knew growing up traveled outside of his home state of Minnesota. Yet, this didn’t stop Heppner, a University of Missouri professor in the College of Education, from becoming a national expert on cross-cultural psychology. His career has led him to live and work in six countries, participate in three visiting professorships and receive three Fulbright awards. Recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) recognized his cross-cultural work by giving him the Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology, one of the highest awards given by the APA.
“We are all living in cultures with different norms,” Heppner said. “Culture affects human behavior. The more we learn about other cultures, the better teachers, mentors, scholars and therapists we can be. Ultimately, understanding different cultures makes us better people.”
During Heppner’s career, he examined the culture-specific relationship between problem solving/coping and psychological adjustment, particularly how East Asian cultures deal with stress. He developed five applied problem-solving and coping inventories. The award recognizes his contributions that include: understanding problem-solving appraisal and coping; research collaborations with scholars around the world; mentoring international students in cross-national research and his facilitation of international relationships and exchanges in counseling psychology.
“In today’s global economy, the market is much bigger than the United States,” Heppner said. “In the future, whites will no longer be the majority and learning to be sensitive to cultural differences will be critically important. When people cooperate, there is more productivity and benefits.”
Heppner received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Minnesota and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has been on the editorial boards of Asian Journal of Counseling, Bulletin of Educational Psychology, The Counseling Psychologist, Journal of Counseling Psychology, Counseling Psychology Quarterly, AACD Media Review Board and Journal of Counseling and Development. He has received three Fulbright Fellowships. The Fulbright Program aims to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries, through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills.
common cross-cultural communication challenges
‘eHow’: How to Prevent Culture Shock
How culture shock broadens your global perspective by Rick Steves
Many Americans board a plane for an overseas destination without fully realizing that they are flying into a completely different culture. Some experience culture shock: a psychological disorientation caused by immersion in a place where people do things — and see things — differently.
Most cultural groups develop separately, with their own logical (as far as they’re concerned) answers to life’s basic needs. While every culture is ethnocentric, thinking “we do it right,” it’s important for travelers to understand that most solutions to life’s problems are neither right nor wrong. They are different. That’s what distinguishes cultures. And, for a traveler, that makes life interesting.
Americans, like all groups, have their own peculiar traits and ways of doing things. It’s fun to look at our culture from a wider perspective and see how others question our sanity. For instance, we consider ourselves very clean, but when we take baths, we use the same water for soaking, cleaning and rinsing. (We wouldn’t wash our dishes that way.) The Japanese, who use clean water for every step of the bathing process, might find our ways strange or even disgusting. People in some cultures blow their nose right onto the street. They couldn’t imagine doing that into a small cloth, called a hanky, and storing it in their pocket to be used again and again.
Once when I was having lunch at a cafeteria in Afghanistan, an older man joined me to make a point. He said, “I am a professor here in Afghanistan. In this world, one-third of the people use a spoon and fork like you, one-third use chopsticks, and one-third uses fingers — like me. And we are all civilized the same.”
Toilet paper (like a spoon or a fork) is another Western “essential” that most people on our planet do not use. What they use varies. I won’t get too graphic here, but remember that millions of civilized people on this planet never eat with their left hand. (Some countries such as Turkey have very frail plumbing, and toilet paper jams up the WCs. If wastebaskets are full of dirty paper, leave yours there, too.)
Too often we judge the world in terms of “civilized” and “primitive.” I was raised thinking the world was a pyramid with the U.S. on top and everyone else was trying to get there. I was comparing people on their ability (or interest) in keeping up with us in material consumption, science and technology.
My egocentrism took a big hit when my parents took me to Europe. I was a pimply teenager in an Oslo park filled with parents doting over their adorable children. I realized those moms and dads loved their kids as much as my parents loved me. And it hit me that this world is home to billions of equally precious children. From that day on, I was blessed … and cursed … with a broader perspective.
Over the years, I’ve found that if we measure cultures differently (maybe according to stress, loneliness, heart attack rates, hours spent in traffic jams or family togetherness), the results stack up differently. It’s best not to fall into the “rating game.” All societies are complex and highly developed in their own way.
Just as we have a stereotypical view of most of the world, most of the world sees us as a version of Uncle Sam. To the average Abdullah on the street — who’s seen plenty of American movies, TV shows, and tourists, and has read countless news stories about those crazy Yankees — we are outgoing, hardworking, informal, rushed, overconfident, and unconcerned with class distinctions and authority.
Some of these traits are positive and others aren’t. Remember, there is no absolute good and bad when it comes to comparing lifestyles. For instance, while we may proudly ignore class ranks and think of our friendliness as a virtue, someone from India might be shocked at our “class ignorance” and a Frenchman might see our “good-old-boy” slap-on-the-back warmth as downright rude.
If a prescription could be written to cure culture shock, it would include instructions to:
- Learn as much as you can about your host culture.
- Assume “strange” habits in this “strange” land are logical. Think of these habits as clever solutions to life’s problems.
- Be militantly positive. Avoid the temptation to commiserate with negative Americans. Don’t joke disapprovingly about a culture you’re trying to understand.
- Make a local friend, someone you can confide in and learn from.
Most importantly, remember that different people find different truths to be “God-given” and “self-evident.” Things work best if we give everybody a little wiggle room. And that goes for more than just travelers.
What have you learned about other cultures while traveling? Share your stories by posting in our comments section.
How to deal with a culture shock while traveling and/or volunteering abroad
Service to a just cause rewards the worker with more real happiness and satisfaction than any other venture of life.” - Carrie Chapman Catt.
Culture shock is defined as pronounced reaction to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture different from their own. Many volunteers who are abroad for an extended period of time succumb to culture shock. Some volunteers are affected by culture shock after a period of days, some weeks and others after a few months.
Culture shock is experienced differently depending on the individual. Culture shock is not caused by a single factor but a culmination of many factors. These factors could be how the local people organize, speak, perceive, value things different from the volunteer. It is also caused by being cut off to what the volunteer is used to.
When volunteers move to a new country they experience these four phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery phase. Culture shock is normally felt in the negotiation and adjustment phase. Symptoms of culture shock are: excessive concern, irritability, withdrawal, homesickness, stereotyping and many others.
Here are tips to overcome culture shock:
Before the volunteer leaves home and during the first few weeks they are in the host country s/he should try and find out as much about the country as they can. They should look at guide books, read literature about the country and research on the internet. Alternatively the volunteer could speak to someone (past volunteer) who was from the country s/he is going to. The past volunteer will be better placed to advice him or her on how to handle themselves while they are abroad and also how to deal with culture shock. Getting proper knowledge will help to set the volunteers’ expectation, not too high or too low.
If the volunteer could travel with a friend it would help overcoming culture shock. The friend who is accompanying the volunteer helps them to relate and understand what s/he is going through. The friend will be able provide emotional support and help the volunteer to get through the slump. If the volunteer has traveled alone, s/he could look for other foreigners in the country and learn how they overcame culture shock. The volunteer should be careful to avoid foreigners who keeping talking about how life is at their home country. When the volunteers finds more friends their social network will be bigger and s/he will feel less isolated and would help them adjust to the new environment.
Keeping in touch
During these times when the volunteer is really being affected by culture shock, they could communicate with family and friends who are back at home. They should try and keep in touch with their friends so as not to feel isolated anymore. With the advent of technology they can call home, use Skype, facebook twitter and many other mediums to reconnect with loved ones at home. Although the volunteer shouldn’t talk too much or be too dependent on family and friends from home as this will make readjustment much harder for them in the new environment.
Reverse Culture shock
This normally happens when the volunteer moves back home after spending a long period of time in another country. The volunteer will feel the same emotions (isolation, irritation loneliness) when they get back home. They would be so used to the living conditions in the host country and when they are at home they will feel like strangers. To deal with reverse culture shock the volunteer should: reestablish relationships with their friends; share their experiences about life abroad; try to readjust to the new living conditions; recognize that the volunteer is a new person and has changed; the volunteer should allow him/ herself time to readjust; and should try and get involved with the place as early as possible.
why we travel - Pico IyerWhy We Travel
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more. The beauty of this whole process was best described, perhaps, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, “The Philosophy of Travel.” We “need sometimes,” the Harvard philosopher wrote, “to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”
I like that stress on work, since never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are to the difficulty that precedes them; and I like the stress on a holiday that’s “moral” since we fall into our ethical habits as easily as into our beds at night. Few of us ever forget the connection between “travel” and “travail,” and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship — both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion — of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.
Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Beijing) or a scratchy revival showing of “Wild Orchids” (on the Champs-Elysees) can be both novelty and revelation: In China, after all, people will pay a whole week’s wages toeat with Colonel Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis.
If a Mongolian restaurant seems exotic to us in Evanston, Ill., it only follows that a McDonald’s would seem equally exotic in Ulan Bator — or, at least, equally far from everything expected. Though it’s fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the “tourist” and the “traveler,” perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don’t: Among those who don’t, a tourist is just someone who complains, “Nothing here is the way it is at home,” while a traveler is one who grumbles, “Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo — or Cuzco or Kathmandu.” It’s all very much the same.
But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal. When you go to North Korea, for example, you really do feel as if you’ve landed on a different planet — and the North Koreans doubtless feel that they’re being visited by an extra-terrestrial, too (or else they simply assume that you, as they do, receive orders every morning from the Central Committee on what clothes to wear and what route to use when walking to work, and you, as they do, have loudspeakers in your bedroom broadcasting propaganda every morning at dawn, and you, as they do, have your radios fixed so as to receive only a single channel).
We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow’s headlines: When you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example, where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet and a “one world order” grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.
And in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon — an anti-Federal Express, if you like — in transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I find that I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California; I invariably travel to Cuba with a suitcase piled high with bottles of Tylenol and bars of soap, and come back with one piled high with salsa tapes, and hopes, and letters to long-lost brothers.
But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places, like Pagan or Lhasa or Havana, we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with the world outside and, very often, the closest, quite literally, they will ever come to Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import — and export — dreams with tenderness.
By now all of us have heard (too often) the old Proust line about how the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new places but in seeing with new eyes. Yet one of the subtler beauties of travel is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter. Thus even as holidays help you appreciate your own home more — not least by seeing it through a distant admirer’s eyes — they help you bring newly appreciative — distant — eyes to the places you visit. You can teach them what they have to celebrate as much as you celebrate what they have to teach. This, I think, is how tourism, which so obviously destroys cultures, can also resuscitate or revive them, how it has created new “traditional” dances in Bali, and caused craftsmen in India to pay new attention to their works. If the first thing we can bring the Cubans is a real and balanced sense of what contemporary America is like, the second — and perhaps more important — thing we can bring them is a fresh and renewed sense of how special are the warmth and beauty of their country, for those who can compare it with other places around the globe.
Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit.
On the most basic level, when I’m in Thailand, though a teetotaler who usually goes to bed at 9 p.m., I stay up till dawn in the local bars; and in Tibet, though not a real Buddhist, I spend days on end in temples, listening to the chants of sutras. I go to Iceland to visit the lunar spaces within me, and, in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally obscured by chatter and routine.
We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity — and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are, as Hazlitt puts it, just the “gentlemen in the parlour,” and people cannot put a name or tag to us. And precisely because we are clarified in this way, and freed of inessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).
Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation. We even may become mysterious — to others, at first, and sometimes to ourselves — and, as no less a dignitary than Oliver Cromwell once noted, “A man never goes so far as when he doesn’t know where he is going.”
There are, of course, great dangers to this, as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more open kind of self. Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year — or at least 45 hours — and traveling is an easy way of surrounding ourselves, as in childhood, with what we cannot understand. Language facilitates this cracking open, for when we go to France, we often migrate to French, and the more childlike self, simple and polite, that speaking a foreign language educes. Even when I’m not speaking pidgin English in Hanoi, I’m simplified in a positive way, and concerned not with expressing myself, but simply making sense.
So travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self. I tend to believe more abroad than I do at home (which, though treacherous again, can at least help me to extend my vision), and I tend to be more easily excited abroad, and even kinder. And since no one I meet can “place” me — no one can fix me in my rsum —I can remake myself for better, as well as, of course, for worse (if travel is notoriously a cradle for false identities, it can also, at its best, be a crucible for truer ones). In this way, travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply (even when staying in a luxury hotel), with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.
This is what Camus meant when he said that “what gives value to travel is fear” — disruption, in other words, (or emancipation) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide. And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions. I, like many people, tend to ask questions of the places I visit, and relish most the ones that ask the most searching questions back of me: In Paraguay, for example, where one car in every two is stolen, and two-thirds of the goods on sale are smuggled, I have to rethink my every Californian assumption. And in Thailand, where many young women give up their bodies in order to protect their families — to become better Buddhists — I have to question my own too-ready judgments. “The ideal travel book,” Christopher Isherwood once said, “should be perhaps a little like a crime story in which you’re in search of something.” And it’s the best kind of something, I would add, if it’s one that you can never quite find.
I remember, in fact, after my first trips to Southeast Asia, more than a decade ago, how I would come back to my apartment in New York, and lie in my bed, kept up by something more than jet lag, playing back, in my memory, over and over, all that I had experienced, and paging wistfully though my photographs and reading and re-reading my diaries, as if to extract some mystery from them. Anyone witnessing this strange scene would have drawn the right conclusion: I was in love.
For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can’t quite speak the language, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re pulled ever deeper into the inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you’re left puzzling over who you are and whom you’ve fallen in love with. All the great travel books are love stories, by some reckoning — from the Odyssey and the Aeneid to the Divine Comedy and the New Testament — and all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.
And what this metaphor also brings home to us is that all travel is a two-way transaction, as we too easily forget, and if warfare is one model of the meeting of nations, romance is another. For what we all too often ignore when we go abroad is that we are objects of scrutiny as much as the people we scrutinize, and we are being consumed by the cultures we consume, as much on the road as when we are at home. At the very least, we are objects of speculation (and even desire) who can seem as exotic to the people around us as they do to us.
We are the comic props in Japanese home-movies, the oddities in Maliese anecdotes and the fall-guys in Chinese jokes; we are the moving postcards or bizarre objets trouves that villagers in Peru will later tell their friends about. If travel is about the meeting of realities, it is no less about the mating of illusions: You give me my dreamed-of vision of Tibet, and I’ll give you your wished-for California. And in truth, many of us, even (or especially) the ones who are fleeing America abroad, will get taken, willy-nilly, as symbols of the American Dream.
That, in fact, is perhaps the most central and most wrenching of the questions travel proposes to us: how to respond to the dream that people tender to you? Do you encourage their notions of a Land of Milk and Honey across the horizon, even if it is the same land you’ve abandoned? Or do you try to dampen their enthusiasm for a place that exists only in the mind? To quicken their dreams may, after all, be to match-make them with an illusion; yet to dash them may be to strip them of the one possession that sustains them in adversity.
That whole complex interaction — not unlike the dilemmas we face with those we love (how do we balance truthfulness and tact?) — is partly the reason why so many of the great travel writers, by nature, are enthusiasts: not just Pierre Loti, who famously, infamously, fell in love wherever he alighted (an archetypal sailor leaving offspring in the form of Madame Butterfly myths), but also Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence or Graham Greene, all of whom bore out the hidden truth that we are optimists abroad as readily as pessimists as home. None of them was by any means blind to the deficiencies of the places around them, but all, having chosen to go there, chose to find something to admire.
All, in that sense, believed in “being moved” as one of the points of taking trips, and “being transported” by private as well as public means; all saw that “ecstasy” (“ex-stasis”) tells us that our highest moments come when we’re not stationary, and that epiphany can follow movement as much as it precipitates it. I remember once asking the great travel writer Norman Lewis if he’d ever be interested in writing on apartheid South Africa. He looked at me astonished. “To write well about a thing,” he said, “I’ve got to like it!”
At the same time, as all this is intrinsic to travel, from Ovid to O’Rourke, travel itself is changing as the world does, and with it, the mandate of the travel writer. It’s not enough to go to the ends of the earth these days (not least because the ends of the earth are often coming to you); and where a writer like Jan Morris could, a few years ago, achieve something miraculous simply by voyaging to all the great cities of the globe, now anyone with a Visa card can do that. So where Morris, in effect, was chronicling the last days of the Empire, a younger travel writer is in a better position to chart the first days of a new Empire, post-national, global, mobile and yet as diligent as the Raj in transporting its props and its values around the world.
In the mid-19th century, the British famously sent the Bible and Shakespeare and cricket round the world; now a more international kind of Empire is sending Madonna and the Simpsons and Brad Pitt. And the way in which each culture takes in this common pool of references tells you as much about them as their indigenous products might. Madonna in an Islamic country, after all, sounds radically different from Madonna in a Confucian one, and neither begins to mean the same as Madonna on East 14th Street. When you go to a McDonald’s outlet in Kyoto, you will find Teriyaki McBurgers and Bacon Potato Pies. The placemats offer maps of the great temples of the city, and the posters all around broadcast the wonders of San Francisco. And — most crucial of all — the young people eating their Big Macs, with baseball caps worn backwards, and tight 501 jeans, are still utterly and inalienably Japanese in the way they move, they nod, they sip their Oolong teas — and never to be mistaken for the patrons of a McDonald’s outlet in Rio, Morocco or Managua. These days a whole new realm of exotica arises out of the way one culture colors and appropriates the products of another.
The other factor complicating and exciting all of this is people, who are, more and more, themselves as many-tongued and mongrel as cities like Sydney or Toronto or Hong Kong. I am, in many ways, an increasingly typical specimen, if only because I was born, as the son of Indian parents, in England, moved to America at 7 and cannot really call myself an Indian, an American or an Englishman. I was, in short, a traveler at birth, for whom even a visit to the candy store was a trip through a foreign world where no one I saw quite matched my parents’ inheritance, or my own. And though some of this is involuntary and tragic — the number of refugees in the world, which came to just 2.5 million in 1970, is now at least 27.4 million — it does involve, for some of us, the chance to be transnational in a happier sense, able to adapt anywhere, used to being outsiders everywhere and forced to fashion our own rigorous sense of home. (And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere.)
Besides, even those who don’t move around the world find the world moving more and more around them. Walk just six blocks, in Queens or Berkeley, and you’re traveling through several cultures in as many minutes; get into a cab outside the White House, and you’re often in a piece of Addis Ababa. And technology, too, compounds this (sometimes deceptive) sense of availability, so that many people feel they can travel around the world without leaving the room — through cyberspace or CD-ROMs, videos and virtual travel. There are many challenges in this, of course, in what it says about essential notions of family and community and loyalty, and in the worry that air-conditioned, purely synthetic versions of places may replace the real thing — not to mention the fact that the world seems increasingly in flux, a moving target quicker than our notions of it. But there is, for the traveler at least, the sense that learning about home and learning about a foreign world can be one and the same thing.
All of us feel this from the cradle, and know, in some sense, that all the significant movement we ever take is internal. We travel when we see a movie, strike up a new friendship, get held up. Novels are often journeys as much as travel books are fictions; and though this has been true since at least as long ago as Sir John Mandeville’s colorful 14th century accounts of a Far East he’d never visited, it’s an even more shadowy distinction now, as genre distinctions join other borders in collapsing.
In Mary Morris’s “House Arrest,” a thinly disguised account of Castro’s Cuba, the novelist reiterates, on the copyright page, “All dialogue is invented. Isabella, her family, the inhabitants and even la isla itself are creations of the author’s imagination.” On Page 172, however, we read, “La isla, of course, does exist. Don’t let anyone fool you about that. It just feels as if it doesn’t. But it does.” No wonder the travel-writer narrator — a fictional construct (or not)? — confesses to devoting her travel magazine column to places that never existed. “Erewhon,” after all, the undiscovered land in Samuel Butler’s great travel novel, is just “nowhere” rearranged.
Travel, then, is a voyage into that famously subjective zone, the imagination, and what the traveler brings back is — and has to be — an ineffable compound of himself and the place, what’s really there and what’s only in him. Thus Bruce Chatwin’s books seem to dance around the distinction between fact and fancy. V.S. Naipaul’s recent book, “A Way in the World,” was published as a non-fictional “series” in England and a “novel” in the United States. And when some of the stories in Paul Theroux’s half-invented memoir, “My Other Life,” were published in The New Yorker, they were slyly categorized as “Fact and Fiction.”
And since travel is, in a sense, about the conspiracy of perception and imagination, the two great travel writers, for me, to whom I constantly return are Emerson and Thoreau (the one who famously advised that “traveling is a fool’s paradise,” and the other who “traveled a good deal in Concord”). Both of them insist on the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, “We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is Africa and her prodigies in us.”
So, if more and more of us have to carry our sense of home inside us, we also — Emerson and Thoreau remind us — have to carry with us our sense of destination. The most valuable Pacifics we explore will always be the vast expanses within us, and the most important Northwest Crossings the thresholds we cross in the heart. The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Center.
And even as the world seems to grow more exhausted, our travels do not, and some of the finest travel books in recent years have been those that undertake a parallel journey, matching the physical steps of a pilgrimage with the metaphysical steps of a questioning (as in Peter Matthiessen’s great “The Snow Leopard”), or chronicling a trip to the farthest reaches of human strangeness (as in Oliver Sack’s “Island of the Color-Blind,” which features a journey not just to a remote atoll in the Pacific, but to a realm where people actually see light differently). The most distant shores, we are constantly reminded, lie within the person asleep at our side.
So travel, at heart, is just a quick way to keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau with whom I began, wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.
About the writer: Pico Iyer is a contributing editor of Salon Travel & Food. His new book is “The Global Soul.” He is also the author of “Video Night in Kathmandu,” “The Lady and the Monk,” “Falling off the Map,” “Cuba and the Night” and “Tropical Classical.”