Everything in its time

About four years ago now, I had a dream, one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had. I was crawling through a tunnel made of rock, spiraling and climbing desperately upwards in darkness. Just as I thought I might be in there forever, my eyes perceived the light, and my head burst through to the surface, where it was a bright and sunny day. I stepped outside and saw that I was standing on a big green mound in the middle of an ocean, and all around me were various other mounds… I turned my head to look around and found I could see miles in all directions, and the bright blue of the sky and bright blue of the ocean were the most beautiful things I had seen, and when I peeled my eyes open in real life those blues were burned into my brain as a memory and promise.

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Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

When I went up to the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind. Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all. Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life… But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams. (November 9, 2015)

I didn’t know what the dream meant right then. But not long after that, I started searching for internships through my university. I was studying International Affairs, and my school had excellent resources for traveling abroad, so I knew I wanted to pursue a six month internship in another country. But the question, as always, was where? I wanted to go pretty much everywhere. Sure I had a priorities list, but I was pretty much open. That dream, life-like as it was, kept coming to mind. I am a Christian so I had to wonder, was it a sign from God? When I started researching countries, and I looked up Indonesia, I found photographs that looked exactly like this place. Maybe I was meant to go here, I thought. But my parents didn’t want me to go, concerned about the travel warnings they’d seen about the country. So I moved along, keeping the dream in mind but trying to let those images grow dull and fade away. It was only a dream.

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Nathan Road, Hong Kong

I think I might actually be in love with Hong Kong. It was one of those romances which is attraction at first sight, but now that I’ve been here for a few days I’ve realized it’s developing into something deeper. It’s not just its physical beauty… it’s a place that contains everything I love about cities and then some. The rolling hills and glistening oceans of Cape Town, the subtle historical influences of Boston, the streets of NYC. And of course, it shares a nation with China, a country I have come to understand if not love (though of course what is love if not deep understanding?) Every people of every nation seems to be here, each style of food and all cultural influences. And then there’s the pace and the fashion and the modernity, coupled with the dirt and the seediness of the back allies and side streets. I feel I could explore it for years and never learn everything about it, and of course that intrigues me. (February 2, 2016)

Then, I had a second dream. This one was about Cape Town, South Africa. I had never been to Cape Town, nor do I remember ever seeing many pictures of it. But there I was, wandering the streets, vividly viewing roads and buildings and parks. I was just… walking, mainly. The only thing special was how realistic it was, and how when I looked up pictures afterward they looked so similar to what I’d seen in my head. Still, I ignored it. South Africa sounded cool, but it was not a ‘priority country’ of mine. At the time I was interested in India, or Cambodia, maybe even Morocco—South Africa had never held the same pull.

Somehow, after months of hearing others talk about it, after both my advisor and my parents recommending it as an excellent choice for me, I accepted my fate and went. I taught English in South Africa for six months at a center assisting adult refugees from other parts of Africa. I learned a lot of things there about myself, not all of them entirely pleasant. But each of them helped build me into a much stronger person, and after that trip ended I was no longer afraid to travel anywhere.

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Lion’s Head, Cape Town, South Africa

Rush hour in Hong Kong may have replaced Victoria Peak as the most beautiful thing I’ve experienced… As I entered this place with thousands of other people around me, all rushing forward, I felt a powerful and revitalizing energy course throughout my body, filling me with a deep passion for everything. A passion for humanity, where I began to view everyone around me with profound fondness and love. A passion for multiculturalism, where Hong Kong’s diversity became powerful and thrilling. An electrifying passion for living in general—with aching legs, I began walking up on the escalator, where moments before I had been ready to lie down and sleep… The fact that we were all feeling the same things and moving towards the same place—home—filled me with love. Obviously, what I saw on that night was not rush hour in Hong Kong. What I saw was what I needed to see, what God wanted me to see… I saw that Hong Kong makes me feel passionate and alive to a level I didn’t even know existed in myself. (February 28, 2016)

The travel bug had bitten me, hard. I spent the rest of my days at university dreaming of dropping everything and becoming a travel writer, or at least moving abroad to start working. Thanks to a few God-directed chance encounters I began considering going to China to teach English. Before I knew it I was scouring online message boards for the least sketchy-sounding opportunities. I finally found one, with a good salary and the promise of a visa in the major Chinese city of Shenzhen. I’d never been there before, but it sounded like the right place for me to be. Off I went.

From Shenzhen, it was just a short hop across the border to see Hong Kong. I didn’t rush over or anything, as I knew so little about it. One day I chanced across on my way to the airport, and was hit with an intense rush of feelings, far more than anything I had ever felt about Shenzhen. Each time I returned to Hong Kong, the feelings grew. They were uncalled for, inexplicable. But I chose to listen, and moved there after my year was up in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Hong Kong with a small amount of savings and no job. I started looking… I was looking for months.

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Skyline of Shenzhen, China

My life is like the Exodus right now… Obviously slavery is a pretty heavy analogy and I don’t mean to lean on it too much, but the thing is that my life in Boston seems… constricted. I know exactly what to be there and what places to eat at and who to hang out with. My role is defined, my place is set. But right now, even though I’m over in Hong Kong, it’s like I’m just wandering in the desert. I keep asking God to give me stuff and feel like he’s not responding in an adequate way, and I’m nowhere near where I want to be and can’t really be there without having a space of my own and a way of making money. I feel burned out and frustrated and like I’ve just been aimlessly searching for far too long. Even though I definitively decided I didn’t want to stay in Boston, I can’t help thinking like the Israelites. Why did you bring me out here into this wilderness? Wouldn’t I have been better off as a slave, where at least I had food, and a roof over my head, and friends? Out here I have nothing! Why aren’t you saving me? (August 26, 2016)

God came through, though it took until that December. Things have been moving forward, slowly but steadily. I have an okay job, a larger amount of savings, and I know more than one person. Importantly, I still love Hong Kong as passionately as I used to if not more so. Now I know its flaws more intimately, but that is the point where genuine love can begin anyways. And the city is vaster than I ever could have imagined, with places to hike to and swim and explore which will keep me busy for years if I so choose.

Like Sai Kung, an area I visited for the first time just this week. I decided to make my way out to an isolated beach, and on the way, I caught a certain view along the roadside…

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Sai Kung, Hong Kong

It was a view that looked exactly like my dream from four years ago, standing on a hill and looking out at a vivid bright blue sky and ocean filled with deep green mounds. After a long dark tunnel, nothing but blue skies. A promise that was made and kept.

God does not work on human time, but on a timeline where eternity is the only meaningful value. Advice is not given at once, but in fragments. At first the advice makes no sense, and comes in as random bursts of energy and emotion. Added together, it makes a story.

The only way to keep the faith is by absorbing the mantra:

“Everything in its time”

I’m sure I will forever be a wanderer, an explorer, and a seeker. Yet I have felt lately that the chapter of life where I was just watching and waiting for God’s plan is coming to an end. I can’t help but feel that here in Hong Kong, the plan is beginning…

But I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

 

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The Ethics of ‘Expatvilles’

Is it right for expats to form isolated communities, or should they be expected to integrate?

It is not uncommon for people of a similar ethnic background to cluster together when moving to a new city. Chinatowns and Little Italies are scattered across the world, many of which offer great cuisine and at least some cultural memory of the original country. The same seems to hold true today in cities with a lot of rich expats* such as Hong Kong. The areas of the city in which high concentrations of foreign restaurants, and foreigners themselves, reside tend to be quite a bit different from other parts of the city.

Just a few days ago, I checked out Discovery Bay, a beautiful little expat beachside community just a 20-minute ferry ride from Central. Walking around, you’d honestly think you were in Europe; the décor was Mediterranean, the vibe was laid-back and peaceful, and there were white people everywhere. White people sharing picnics with a bottle of wine, white mothers playing with their children on the beach, and everyone was speaking either English or French. A beautiful place… but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.

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The promenade in Discovery Bay

I have taken to checking out different areas of Hong Kong lately because I’d really like to move out of my shoebox-sized, shared flat and into a place of my own as soon as possible. Hong Kong offers a lot of diversity in lifestyle, both in terms of the population density and scenery of your neighborhood, and in its ethnic makeup.

I am a white girl from an upper middle class background used to living in a certain environment and culture. But I am also a girl who chose to try something new in coming to Hong Kong while accepting that things would be different here. And so when I look at where I want to live, I am always torn. Should I stay in an area that offers comfort and familiarity, as I will be engaging with the city anyways at the office and in my free time? Or must I immerse myself at all times in the most ‘Hong Kong’ environment possible, to get the full experience from this portion of my life?

The thing that raises the most red flags for me is that many expat-dominated areas are actually nicer than where a lot of Hong Kongers spend their time. Much of this is because of the city’s colonial past. Central district, for example, was originally built up to accommodate the needs of the British, and the Britishness of that area has been retained even after the 1997 handover. While many Hong Kongers spend time there and can afford to live there too, it is still amazing to walk down the street and see 50% or so white faces, whereas in most other areas it’s maybe around 1%. On top of that expats have continued creating new isolated communities such as Discovery Bay, where even native Hong Kongers with plenty of money would likely feel out of place.

When Chinatowns formed across America, it was not because Chinese people could afford to live in a nicer place than almost all of the local population. It was the exact opposite—they mostly stuck together because they needed to find financial assistance, employment, or translators to help them out. It must be acknowledged that there is a big difference in clustering together to find people to assist you in surviving in a new country, and clustering together because have no interest in speaking Cantonese and can afford a beachfront property. Expats don’t really need to live with other expats—they just want to. So in short, expat neighborhoods represent a form of privilege that other ethnic neighborhoods generally do not represent.

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Major shopping area in Discovery Bay

And yet, these expat havens may also serve practical purposes. Just like for Chinese people coming to America, who I’m sure were often overwhelmed by the culture, going the other way can be overwhelming for us too. Hong Kong is just very tragic in a lot of ways, and the more you speak to people here the more that can weigh on your soul. I have empathy for Hong Kong and its citizens but in the end their problems are not my problems, as I can go home at any time. Is it better for your own health, then, to stay in a place where you can in a sense “go home” each night?

I guess what the question comes down to is this: Should expats be expected to have a certain “goal” or maintain a certain moral code when they move abroad? Is it okay for an expat to go abroad with the sole intent of enjoying his or her privilege as compared to locals, or must there always be a higher purpose of wanting to explore a new culture and see the world through other people’s eyes?

It seems to me that although it would be impossible to set formal rules as to what expats should and shouldn’t do, I think it is very important for people in this category to critically examine our behaviors while abroad, and our motivations behind those behaviors. Abusing your privilege comes more naturally than you might think, and the cheaper a country is to live in, the more ways there are to do it. Living in the nicest environment you can afford with your own income isn’t necessarily an abuse in itself—but you do have to also ask yourself the question, what is my real motivation for choosing this particular neighborhood, and why did I not choose a nice home in a more ‘Hong Kong’ part of town?

If you choose to live in ‘Expatville’ in order to meet others with similar backgrounds, stay close to familiar foods, or have access to schools for your children to attend, I think all of these reasons are in some way justifiable. However, if you live in ‘Expatville’ because you don’t like spending time with locals, you think everyone else’s standard of living is too low for you, or you plan to stumble around the city a drunken mess every night with folks just like you, you might want to take a step back and think about why you even wanted to be an expat in the first place.

In the end, if it turns out you’ve only moved abroad to live out some neo-colonial fantasy, then I would suggest sparing the locals and staying in England.

* It’s worth noting that “expat” is inherently a racially loaded term, as it tends to mean “white person who lives abroad” (or at least someone from a mostly-white developed country like France or the US). When it’s someone from India or Ethiopia or something we tend to call them an “immigrant”… even though they’re basically the same thing.

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Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay

10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Singapore

Before I took my recent trip to Singapore, the only things I knew about it were:

  1. It is a modernized, international city-state (as in, both a city and a country), and
  2. Chewing gum there is illegal.

I wasn’t sure what there was to see and do there, but it is close to Hong Kong and cheap to fly to so I decided to give it a shot. Turns out Singapore is awesome! Here are ten things I learned about the country during my trip.

Country Background

  1. Singapore is a true mix of Asian cultures

According to demographic statistics, Singapore is about 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian. The city’s museums do an excellent job of portraying the histories of these different groups, and visiting the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India is another great chance for tourists to witness Singapore’s diversity.

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  1. It has four official languages

Because of its ethnic diversity, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil (which is spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka). The language of instruction in schools is English, but children are required to study another official language as a second language. English is therefore the lingua franca, though I found people’s accents tricky to understand at first!

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Sultan Mosque, located in Arab Street

3. Religious diversity is high

Singapore is about 33% Buddhist, 20% Christian, 14% Muslim, 11% Taoist, and 5% Hindu. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, that makes Singapore the world’s most religiously diverse nation. One cool experience I had was that my hostel was located in a very Muslim neighborhood where most women wore headscarves and long skirts, and I was able to visit a massive Ramadan night market along with a varied crowd of people (the one at Gerang Serai for those who know the city!) There are beautiful mosques, temples, and churches scattered throughout the city, and according to Singaporeans everyone celebrates everyone else’s holidays.

Statistics from: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/

  1. Before becoming independent, Singapore was occupied by Japan…

Singapore was a British colony from the 1800s up until World War 2, when Japan was able to take Singapore from the British. At the end of the war the territory was given back Britain, but soon Singaporeans began requesting independence.

  1. … And then it was part of Malaysia for two years

Ever wondered why Singapore exists as a tiny little dot at the end of Malaysia’s long tail? Well, after Singapore first gained its independence, it did try and join Malaysia, but the union didn’t work out. Malaysia overall hoped to form a society based on Malaysian culture, while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

To clarify that vision, when the government of Singapore decided to become independent, Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew told the new nation, “We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not as Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.” And that is the model which has ushered in modern Singapore.

Fun Facts!

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  1. Ice kasang is pretty cool

The coolest food (literally) I tried in Singapore is called ice kasang, and it is popular in both Malaysia and Singapore. I was wandering around a mall food court one day hoping to grab a snack (sometimes I’m so excited when I travel that I forget to eat proper meals) and I looked over at someone else’s table and spied a rainbow mountain of goodness. Immediately I rushed to the closest food stall, scanning menus until I figured out where I could have what she was having!

I got a mango ice kasang (pronounced ka-chang), and it is made through the following steps: 1) Dump some weird tasteless jelly things into a bowl 2) Dump in corn (yes, corn) and red beans 3) Shave a massive heap of ice over the top 4) Pour various sweet syrups and some condensed milk onto the ice, and 5) Crown the top with some tasty mangoes. Honestly I thought this thing was so good, though like I said the jellies at the bottom were a disappointing finish and my mouth was entirely numb after eating approximately three pounds of snow. It was really the perfect treat after wandering around in Singapore’s sweltering heat!

  1. More Food Facts: Kopi, Teh, or Milo?

Ordering a drink in Singapore was probably the most difficult experience of my trip. I know that the city has four official languages, but I think ordering coffee should be an official fifth!

Menus start with both regular coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), which is pretty easy to figure out, but there is also an entire shorthand language which can be added onto the ends of kopi and teh. Adding “Si” means you want both milk and sugar, “O” means sugar but no milk, and then you can even mix all of the flavors together if you want… I think what I ended up getting was the “Kopi C Halia Iced,” which was iced coffee with milk and sugar and also some ginger flavor (that was the “halia”). I felt very proud when I sort of knew what I was saying as I ordered.

On top of kopi and teh there is also Milo which is like a powdered hot chocolate type of thing that lots of people, especially kids, love to drink. One Milo drink is the Milo Dinosaur, which is iced Milo with condensed milk and sugar, and undissolved Milo powder piled on top in a little mound.

  1. Singapore has nature!

Despite Singapore being a modern city some of its major tourist attractions are all about nature. Like Gardens by the Bay, which you’ve probably seen tons of really cool photos of on Instagram. Apart from the classic Supertree Grove there are some lovely fields and flowers there too.

But the biggest and best Singaporean nature attraction is definitely the Botanical Gardens, and particularly the Orchid Garden section. While a large part of the Botanical Gardens is free, not much of it is very photo-worthy apart from the palm tree section. But the Orchid Garden had plenty of stunning plants, archways, gazebos, trees, and so on. It made me feel like I was in The Secret Garden, and is a lovely way to spend a morning.

  1. Singapore has beaches!

Again, since I always just perceived Singapore to be a big city it kind of slipped my mind that it is actually an island (confession: I actually didn’t even know that until after my trip…) and therefore there is lots of nice coastline. While most tourists head to a tiny island in the south of Singapore called Sentosa to get their beach fix, I decided to try one closer to my hostel, East Coast Park.

I would very highly recommend this beach. It was near-empty, the water was super warm, and almost everyone else there was a local. The beach also had a really excellent selection of oceanfront places to eat and drink, so after burning my skin in the sun for a few hours I was able to get a bacon burger and beer, and a Starbucks frappuchino for dessert. And before you lambast me for being a basic white girl tourist, don’t worry, I also crossed the street afterwards and tried some Indonesian ‘pulut hitam’ flavored ice cream. Pulut hitam is made from black glutinous rice porridge with coconut milk and palm or cane sugar, but all I knew at the time was that it was purple and delicious, and definitely worth eating two desserts in one day. (Second confession: I may have had even more desserts that evening…)

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The Merlion is Singapore’s mascot!

10. Singaporeans love their countrySingaporeans definitely really want travelers to see their country, probably because it is not exactly a #1 world tourism destination. I met some extremely helpful people who talked to me all about their country’s history, culture, and most interesting spots. For example, as I ate lunch in little India, a woman at the next table over randomly struck up a conversation with me, gave me several restaurant recommendations, and then pulled out a paper and pen and made a full list of other things I could go see during my trip!

I noticed a theme of the recommendations I got was that people really wanted you to see stuff other than the tourist locations. I feel like in some countries, when you get off the beaten path people look at you funny, like, “Why on Earth would a tourist be out here?” But in Singapore it seemed they were really appreciative of people who like to dig a little deeper. Since that is exactly how I like to travel, and since I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s perspectives on random things like the chewing gum policy, this made Singapore a great fit for me! (Did you know spitting is illegal too? Wow!)

After visiting, I can see why people are so proud—Singapore is diverse, safe, peaceful, and accomplished, which makes it a lovely place to spend some time. 

Victoria Peak

It would be difficult to overstate the beauty of the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Of course I haven’t been everywhere in the world (not even close) and I’m still young, but I like to think I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China and seen the Eiffel Tower at dusk… but the reaction I had looking out at the city of Hong Kong from the top of the Peak was borderline spiritual, and probably the best place I’ve seen yet.

Travel is always made more meaningful based on the lens we are looking through. Even with no lens the Peak is phenomenal; one of the world’s most dazzling cities, surrounded by incredible mountains and a clear blue ocean… I truly believe that nowhere in the world is going to get much better than that. But I saw it all at a time when, after having moving to China just a few months before, I wasn’t totally positive that I had made the right choice. I was doubting myself, wondering if just staying in America like the rest of my friends would have provided me with better life opportunities. I never questioned that thought again after this day. No way would missing out on this have been the better choice!

It’s probably best to just show some pictures, and put down what I wrote about it in my journal that day…

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“I identify as being an idealist. This means I have an imagination from my childhood that never quite went away, and it also means that my standards tend to be very high. I can daydream up the perfect vacation spot in an instant. I can make up friends and boyfriends and travel buddies galore without ever having to meet real people or do anything genuine. It’s no wonder I spend so many hours in my room thinking—there’s a huge world going on inside my head, and it’s a shame no one else gets to live in it too.

My expectations for Hong Kong were quite high. Obviously it is a well-known and well-loved city, a place I’ve fantasized about visiting for years now. Everyone just kept telling me about how cool it was, how unique, how energetic. So I went into this place expecting to find an awesome city.

And that is what I found, for the most part. On the ground Hong Kong is pretty great, full of interesting people and places and things to see. I took to it instantly, and vowed, just like last time, to start spending a lot more time there.

And then I went up to the top of the highest hill in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak. And for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind.

Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all.

Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life. I feel as though nothing much can really impress me because aren’t my dreams always going to be better than reality?

But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams.”

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Travel Won’t Kill You, but your Worldview will Never be the Same

I write about travel because I believe it is one of the few things in this world which has the power to genuinely change who we are.

By ‘travel’, I don’t mean heading to a foreign beach resort for four days and then taking a taxi back to the airport—though even that can help people dip their toes in the travel water, and I’m all for it. But to me the word ‘travel’ is much more than that, and is about experiencing sustained, long-term living in another location. I believe this form of travel is one of the most worthwhile things a person can invest their time and money in.

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Hordes of Chinese tourists won’t kill you

Of my 2.5 years of professional experience so far, about 2 years of it has been spent abroad. Many have told me that living in places like China and South Africa is dangerous, but as a young woman who mostly travels solo, I can tell you that the most danger I’ve encountered so far has been taxis that go too fast (or perhaps even scarier, taxis that go way too slow!) The most uncomfortable situations I’ve been in have either been cultural miscommunications, language barriers, or greetings from random men (the last of which can’t seem to be avoided anywhere, though some areas are worse than others).

Hearing stories of genuinely dangerous travel experiences is rare, but this seems to be the main fear people have when friends or relatives leave the country, and for months before you leave you are peppered with cautions, “Don’t walk around alone! Don’t trust strangers! Don’t eat the street food!”

Instead, I’d suggest the warnings people should give are more things like, “Don’t have a crisis of identity! Don’t forget about culture shock!” Or even, “Hope we don’t start fighting after you get back because we see the world so totally differently!” But it is much more realistic that these things will be the actual consequences of travel, rather than the stabbing in some alley in Bangkok that all your friends are picturing.

Traveling likely won’t kill you, but it may kill your worldview. There is an often-repeated Mark Twain quote that goes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” There is a reason people still use it as an Instagram caption to this day; the more I’ve traveled the more I’ve realized that travel is incredibly effective in breaking down the comfortable walls of your beliefs and building them back up again, in a new and stronger pattern.

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Spicy street food won’t kill you

Having walls in the first place is inevitable. Every one of us grows up inside a certain context, our own little boxes if you will. It is difficult (if not impossible) to mentally remove ourselves from those boxes and think about life in another box—most of the time, our walls are just too high. Our own contexts are never perfect; every family, neighborhood, and nation in this world has its own flaws, and sometimes those flaws include encouraging us to stereotype or look down on certain people. They also encourage habits that we assume are universal, but definitely aren’t. Even mundane things like drinking cold water might get you raised eyebrows in another country.

The only effective way to learn what things are only true inside of your own box, and what things are true for all of the boxes, is honestly very simple: see as many boxes as you can during your lifetime.

In my experience, the two lines of thought which travel most effectively destroys are fundamentalism and nationalism. By fundamentalism I mean the idea that one’s beliefs are not allowed to be questioned or challenged, while by nationalism I mean a belief in the superiority of one’s own nation over others. In today’s world I see fundamentalism on both the political right and left; I see nationalism mainly on the right, though the left at times buys into in a sort of reverse nationalism. (By that I mean seeing one’s own nation as inferior to others, and believing its only hope of salvation is emulating another nation’s culture or politics.) I believe that the reverse is less dangerous than traditional nationalism, but that it still represents a view of the world from someone who hasn’t seen enough boxes yet.

You can’t travel and continue to be a fundamentalist because that whole “my beliefs must not be questioned” privilege rapidly erodes when you enter a country that shares almost none of your beliefs. Travel will not politely ask you if it can have a calm, safe discussion—travel talks its mouth off, forcing you to keep up. Travel will put you in a cab with the most pro-Communist Party taxi driver in all of China and have you listen to his praises of the government for the entire ride. Travel will have a woman of color tell you in broken English how beautiful white people are. Travel will get you into a conversation with a Nigerian woman who believes that being gay is the work of the devil. And yet everywhere you go, some of these same people who disagree with you on everything will be so unbelievably kind and welcoming and generous, and sometimes that can be challenging to wrap your head around too.

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Letting your feet get bitten by little fishies won’t kill you

Travel is also fatal to nationalism and its inversions. It is hard to think of your nation as particular and extraordinary once you have seen a dozen others and eaten at a McDonald’s in every single one. Travel shows you that there are hundreds of things your nation is absolutely terrible at—and then hundreds it is great at which others lack. A hard truth of the world that you learn through travel is that there is simply no “miracle cure” to any complex problem—and there is no one perfect nation. You will never be able to move anywhere new and be perfectly happy all the time, and each place has its unique joys and unique annoyances. Your nation is both nothing to brag about, and to be treasured for all which makes it unique and good. Travel primes our brains for the nuance that enables us to hold both beliefs simultaneously.

So in the end… travel is probably not going to kill you, at least not in the physical sense. But it might kill you mentally and emotionally at times, and it will certainly kill some of your beliefs off. It’s a good thing, because nothing in this world deserves to be trusted without question—not ideas, not people, and certainly not street food—and travel helps you to come to terms with this to a poignant extent.

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Interesting fashion choices won’t kill you (probably…)

What if you don’t have the time or money to travel right now? Well, you can challenge yourself by trying to jump into new boxes whenever you can. Read fiction or non-fiction about other countries, particularly ones where you feel you do not understand the culture. Interact with foreigners you meet in your own country—ask them questions about how they see America and what their own countries are like. And if you really don’t want to substitute any of this for the real experience, then don’t. Even if you’re just going to a beach resort in Bermuda, a few minutes of talking to the taxi driver will put you in a whole new box, so don’t pass up the chance.