This week I visited a couple places I have never been before and have no heritage connection to. In everything from my language to my yearning for meals comprised mostly of kale, it was clear I don’t belong. I dress, act, speak, and listen differently than the locals. But that was all well and fine because I went to these places on purpose to visit friends and soak-in a location and culture I’ve never experienced. I volunteered to be an outsider.
I think travel is something everyone should experience at some point. I wish it were both compulsory and community-funded so everyone had the opportunity to go somewhere completely foreign from their regular life. And I wish we could collectively facilitate travel for everyone early enough in their development for it to shape the adult they grow into. Some lessons can only be learned through experience and travel is a catalyst for several.
The most present for me in this moment is about othering and being othered. It’s one thing to volunteer to be the outsider as I just did. To go to a place you don’t belong and… not belong. It’s quite another thing for someone else to decide you don’t belong in a place, especially if that place is actually yours. In the US many people experience that kind of othering in their everyday lives. If that doesn’t happen to you, one easy way to grow your capacity for empathy with your fellow citizens is through travel to unfamiliar places.
On the flip-side, if you are one of the many humans shunned at home for existing, sometimes you can travel to a place where your people are. It can be as close as the next neighborhood or as far as the opposite side of the globe. Its existence can be geographically fixed like a city or mountain, or it can appear during a specific season like festivals or conventions. Sometimes you know where it is before you set out and sometimes you find it accidentally along your way.
It also feels important to acknowledge how challenging and traumatic it has been and still is for marginalized folks to travel. Not that long ago Black travelers compiled The Green Book, a compendium of safe places for humans of color to eat, sleep, refuel, and go to the bathroom while traveling. Today, an online global version was created to "to inspire and empower black travelers so they can confidently explore the world." A continuing need of Black folks continuing to be met by Black folks.
Of course no matter where you’re going, what you’re doing, or how much you experience, you’re not guaranteed to grow more fully into your own humanity or expand you ability to recognize the humanity of others. In modern times, and with enough resources, you can travel to most places surrounded by a bubble of your comfort zone. In that case you only experience what you want to experience and not necessarily what a place has to offer.
You can also miss the learning and growing travel can foster if you avoid examining your experience. Reflection is what puts all the emotional, intellectual, and sensory data points gathered during your journey into some kind of broader context. The process of thinking, feeling, and assessing your travel experience allows your brain to categorize, identify patterns, and grow knowledge into wisdom.
One thing I appreciate about living in a place with different rhythms is the light it shines on all the details of my regular daily experience. I drive a lot more back home, but I walked most places while away. Our home is not large by US standards, but we have a lot more space per resident than most middle class homes seem to have in Europe. One area of particular note is the different cuisine. I am allergic to a lot of seemingly random things, some of which I have eaten in these new places without the usual unpleasant consequence.
In Europe I can have dairy without incident or suffering. Apparently that’s because European dairy cows are a different breed than American dairy cows and their milk doesn’t contain a certain protein. That pesky protein is the part of cow dairy that doesn’t jive with my body. I had a similar experience with pork. A few years ago I had to stop eating pork because the delicious meal experience on the front-end wasn’t worth the fallout on the back-end. Not so in Europe.
That got me wondering whether American pigs are also a different breed. A cursory search of the internet reveals they are not. The problem is actually that pigs in the US are drugged-up with growth substances banned in 160 other countries. Not only do they cause a lot of suffering for the pigs, they are cancerous to humans who consume those pigs. So apparently it’s not the pig meat, but the extra chemicals my body cannot tolerate.
Which is profoundly upsetting. I put a lot of effort into my personal health and well-being, especially where food is concerned. Much of my detailed attention to what I eat is driven by necessity. Being allergic to things like dairy and soy (which are in basically everything) has trained me to read every label everywhere. I often refuse most or all edible offerings at parties, restaurants, and events. I’m just lucky I live in the food bubble of Portland Oregon where people are generally used to accommodating dietary restrictions.
There are some things I can never have no matter what country I’m in because the plant itself is the problem (according to my body). But if a significant portion of the foods on my Do Not Consume list are only on there because as a nation we’ve decided to poison ourselves in some specific ways, I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. No matter how much care I take with my consumption choices, I’m still eating food that’s slowly poisoning my body. I am a dietary outsider in my own land.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.