This is the third blog in this series, so hopefully by now you know that there are many things I hate about traveling:
- Alerting my banks and phone carrier that I’ll be traveling
- Airline food
- Lost luggage
- Flight delays and cancellations
- Swollen ankles and sore ears on airplanes
- Economy seats on a 15 hour flight
- Expense reports in a foreign currency or, better yet, 5 different foreign currencies!
But, I travel because I love to be fascinated about how the world works, and I love learning new things about myself. There is another reason I travel, and this one is not something I love, because it is something that is hard, but necessary. When I travel, mostly internationally, but sometimes domestically too, I learn what it’s like to be the person in the minority. That is not usually a fun lesson, but it is an important one.
Whether I am the only white woman on an airplane with 300 passengers traveling to Ghana or the only foreigner on a crowded bus in China, these are the moments when I get to glimpse the experience of the recent immigrant to the U.S. who may be trying to learn the language. I can tell you it’s hard, and during stressful moments, second or third or fourth languages don’t come as easily.
It feels like all eyes are on me. I’m sure they’re not because most people are just going about their day and are not particularly concerned with a white woman on a plane or a bus. But, if they do notice me, what are they thinking? They usually rightly assume I am from the U.S. (Not sure why I cannot pull off Canadian or European, but I cannot.) What do they think of my country? And do they project that, good or bad, on to me? Do they resent my western privilege? I might, if I were them. Do they want to help the clueless American who can’t speak the language or read a map? Or do they wish we would all just stay home and leave them alone?
My first visit to China, I was alone at the airport taking a domestic flight from Beijing to Karamay. I didn’t understand the check in system. I didn’t know where to go. When I finally got to my gate, we all got on a crowded bus. I’ve been in other airports where I’ve done this, so I was comfortable enough, but then we kept riding and riding for so long. Still, the bus transfer at London Heathrow can be quite long, so I’m still good. But now we are passing what looks like an airplane graveyard and what appears to be a group of young military men running some kind of drill – there’s a lot of them, what are they doing? And why is this taking us so long? I can’t ask anyone because I don’t speak Chinese. And I get a small glimpse of how a refugee might feel. When they think they are headed to a safe place, but they really are not sure because they cannot read the signs or speak the language, and the long bus ride takes them past sights and sounds that are unfamiliar and disconcerting. A mix of relief and hope that you are heading toward safety, but also fear and apprehension because you are just not sure.
I’m careful to call these glimpses, because I will go home in a few days. I live most of my life in the majority with lots of layers of privilege. But this glimpse helps me be more compassionate, more empathetic, more willing to help someone read a map, and more willing to advocate for policies that support minorities. I hate to travel, but I have to so that I can put myself in other people’s shoes. And then bring that experience with me into the voting booth or to a city council meeting.