These are two sides of one coin: the idea that the stranger is different and needs to be judged.
It is not a new idea: Many myths and ancient stories are based on the stranger. Throughout history societies have struggled with the question “what do we do about this person who is not one of us?” Current events clearly show that we still haven’t figured out a solution.
When we travel, we are ambassadors, not just for our little corner of the world. We are ambassadors for the stranger, for travelers everywhere. That extends to when we return home.
When you travel you are the stranger.
Many cultures have an etiquette for welcoming strangers. I sometimes think there should be one for being the stranger.
Something along the lines of a reverse welcome:
Say hello, smile, and, most importantly, realign your thinking to “different from what I am used to” does not mean wrong, it means an opportunity to learn a new way.
A booby trap:
We all like to feel good about ourselves, unfortunately that can morph into trying to come off as superior to the people around us. It is easy to talk about having a great phone, nice car…whatever. It’s human nature. When traveling I think it is important to switch this off. Instead say something admiring about the place you are in, or the people you are with or ask a question about local customs. Get that subject changed!
Embrace the new perspective of being an outsider.
“Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
One of the reasons for this is that you go out of the bubble where people are like you: look like you, talk like you, act like you and, to some extent, think in the same patterns that you do.
It is healthy to be the outsider now and then, the one who is different and stands out. It sensitizes you to how people who are outsiders feel when they visit your bubble. And it can help you to explain to folks inside the bubble that outsiders aren’t bad, just different.
Traveling in Africa and China I stand out like a sore thumb. I am always a bit embarrassed when people want to take pictures with me, like I am a Disney character. I always say yes, because I feel that it is polite, and I want people to feel like I am approachable, and to be glad that I visited, but it makes me cringe inside.
The job of ambassador for the stranger doesn’t end when you get home.
Share the good things about the country and customs you learned about while you were traveling. Try to help people understand that different doesn’t equal wrong and that we are all human beings sharing the same planet. We all eat, need shelter and deal with inclement weather. We all love. We have hobbies and friends. Kids are all cute…
Here’s why it’s important:
One of the places I felt the most out of place, and unwelcome, was in Missouri. I live the in the USA, so Missouri isn’t technically abroad. I don’t physically stand out there, and I don’t dress outlandishly or wear my hair in dread locks. Heck, I’m even a Christian.
I felt weird because of the clear xenophobia displayed by the local people. Even though we were visiting relatives, who made an effort to make us feel welcome, there was a tension. It popped up in some weird ways, for example, my husband’s cousin brought his own private cooler of beer and wouldn’t drink beer that others brought. I’m not sure if he was more afraid he wouldn’t like it or if he would, but he wasn’t taking any chances that he might have to drink weird foreign beer.