The old feelings are the same. There’s state of calm at airports. There’s nothing much to do but wait for your flight. You sit alone, by a cafe, sipping a cup of warm Chinese tea purchased from the airport’s food outlet, thinking about what’s left behind at home and what’s there in front in a new country.
The same thoughts run through your mind.
The good old parents that wave you goodbye. The flight worries that never change. The nagging thought that if something happens to you on the plane, or overseas, it might be the last time you see them. The slight worry if you’ve bought the right number of underwear with you. The younger brother that doesn’t wish you goodbye.
You’re in the world of transit. The pressure of society, friends, parents, school, your culture is all lifted for that couple of hours you’re at the airport and in the air. You’re alone. There aren’t any expectations you’re up in the air 6000ft above sea level. It’s just you, a piece of metal dividing between you and everything.
I spent the last 2 years travelling most of South East Asia, and Asia, working on freelance web projects. Staying in countries and foreign cultures weeks at a go. Traveling the world, staying in foreign cultures for more than weeks at a go was inspired by Tim Ferris’s book, the Four Hour Work Week.
Travel Gives you a Birds Eye View of Your Relationships
When you’re alone in another culture, another part of the world, you get a bird’s eye view of all your relationships. The things you never noticed about your relationships before start popping out. This is true for all your relationships. Your relationship with your parents, your friends, your co-workers and everyone.
You start questioning those relationships started out of social circumstances. You start questioning if you guys would have gotten along if not you met them in the army, through a common friend, in University or at work. You questioning if that’s the nature of most relationships. Borne out of social circumstances. You start wondering if that’s really how relationships should work?
Why fuck doesn’t Dad call me when I’m overseas? Why does Mum seem overly worried whenever I am alone. Why does she only talk to me when I am overseas, however, when I’m back home, it’s always kind of cold. Why do my friends happen to drop off one by one when I’m spending 3 weeks in Thailand?
These are insights that cannot be unlearned.
These things show up when you’re 1000 miles away from home.
You get to objectively evaluate your relationships: The way someone screwed you over that business deal, the way your good friend always talks you down during that soccer match, the way someone disappears from your life every few months, only to come back later when he’s not with some other girl anymore.
The thoughts you don’t express start popping out. You start wondering if those relationships are actual relationships, or if those are just relationships you built out of social circumstances. You wonder if some of the relationships you built in your life were just there to cope with life at that point in time.
You also learn that some relationships are unrepairable, broken like a Chinese plate. It’s better to dispose of them than to try to piece them back together.
Then follows a sense of injustice, anger, resentment and bitterness.
You gradually move on to thinking if it’s worth all the mental effort to hold anger and resentment in you. You also wonder if you’ve been too much of a nice guy. Not asserting your boundaries, and not standing up for yourself in certain situations.
It’s Values That Brings and Tear People Apart
When I was in a dingy apartment in New York City, I met a friend who I formed a friendship with within a night of meeting him. He was open minded, argumentative and we spent a night debating the existence of free will. However, for some reason, it just didn’t click with me. I felt he was mouthing off on the non-existence of free will just because he was in a downturn in his life.
Where was the personal accountability?
You wonder if there’s actually something positive about Asian culture. I once felt that everyone should express their views openly, as much as possible. However, when I was in more liberal cultures, you start to wonder if tolerance and acceptance is something that Asian culture has that is actually something good. You also wonder if good values of tolerance and acceptance have been used by people in power to propagate and oppress, as opposed to the genuine expression of those values itself.
You also learn that no matter where you are in the world, you can still build new relationships. You also wonder if it’s not the relationships that give you a sense of fulfilment, but rather ability to generate connection in a relationship that gives you that.
Whilst the majority of travellers are looking to go hit as many tourist attractions as possible, I wasn’t really that pumped. I learnt to measure the success of my trips not by the number of cities or world attractions that I’ve been to, but the quality of the relationships I develop. Instead of novelty, I seek out connection and meaning.
Ultimately, it’s values that bring people and tears, people, part. It’s rarely the about the amount of time spent or the number of days you see each other a week.
Your Identity is in Constant Flux
When you exclude all of those external influences, your identity is in constant flux.
You learn a lot about things about yourself that you are blind to when you’re back home. The way you go about leaving your room in a mess, the way you leave your dishes overnight and piss your roommate off. These tiny nuances show up when you no longer have Mum to clean up for you. This is especially true for Singaporeans where most of them live with their parents till they get married.
It’s also this isolating independence that can throw people off.
The last time I went to Japan, I felt bummed out from all the travelling. I was often alone and didn’t really have a community around me. I also wasn’t exactly making a lot of money from building websites.
The novelty of exploring new touristy places also wore off slowly. Meet up events with random travellers such as playing beer pong and getting shit faced at the end of it started to seem childish and repetitive. I got weary of the whole rent a friend for a week bargain. I rarely followed up on the relationships that I met. They were going to go home and I’m going to go home, so what’s the fucking point?
I also surprisingly found myself preferring routine when I am abroad. When I was in my early twenties, I could work with almost any situation. Jump into a dingy bar right after beer pong? Sure! Sign me up! However, as I travel more, I find myself being a lot more structured towards my daily life. I used to be a lot more impromptu with joining the plans of others. However, now that I am older, surprises and hiccups in my days throw me off, more than usual, which is unlikely of when I was as a teenager.
The Chase For the New: Is it Worth It?
I find myself looking back and questioning myself on the value of commitment. There are many of my friends who are in committed relationships whilst I was floating about in foreign cultures. Some them getting married, some of them in committed relationships. I’ve been for the better part of the decade, burying myself in the arms of some other girl from another part of the world.
Whilst I’m back home, I shy away from commitment. Was it because I couldn’t connect to the values of people back home? Was it because I was much more patient with a foreign girl or person who couldn’t exactly speak my language and it made it seem much more novel?
For the chase of the new and novel, you give up the comfort of routine. The sights and tastes of the world. The possibility of adventure. The novelty of getting lost in another culture, away from your old world, away from your old self. Whilst, some of us genuinely enjoy exploring different cultures and different people. Some of us are using it for escapism. Like the old saying goes no matter where you go, there you are. You can’t run away from yourself.
You could argue that it’s a slight mix of both. On one end, you have a genuine desire to be put in a new culture, with new people, new sights and surroundings. On the other end, you’re merely running away from problems that should be addressed back home.
The advent of the information economy, the luxury of the internet, and modern society has enabled entrepreneurs, individuals to experience the ‘new rich’, abandoning the ‘old rich’ and enjoying a life of novel experiences.
However, how much of it is actually contributing to our actual happiness?
These issues can be really simple. It could be financial stability (a fucking job finally), an actual fucking relationship with your parents, a group of friends that you enjoy being with on a weekly basis, or a fucking girlfriend that loves you, you know.
These can only achieve in committing geographically for a period of time. Floating in-between cultures and geography is exhilarating. However, there’s always a pullback to go back to your community. The place you call home.
Only time can tell, these questions will once again be answered I settle down for a period of time.
We’re Eaten Up By Nothing
Charles Bukowski, a poet once wrote: We’re all going to die, all of us and that alone should make us love each other more, but it doesn’t, yet we’re terrorized and flattened by trivialities.
The expectations of a simple phone call, a simple text message. The old friends that fade away, the new ones come, and will soon go. The trivialities that you and I spend our daily lives agonising over. When you’re alone by yourself in a foreign culture, all these things become a lot more obvious to you. The phone calls from the family that we take for granted. The simple text messages, or Instagram comments from a friend back home.
There was once I was waiting for a train in Tokyo and I was feeling really horrible about myself. A simple text conversation from a good friend was enough to alleviate the loneliness a give me a sense of connection. It taught me that if you’re willing to reach out to someone, there are more or less likely to help you or empathize with you.
The more you travel, the more you lose sight of yourself. You wonder if that’s a good thing. You wonder if your career goals, the people you hang out with, your fears and dreams are all a product of circumstances, or if it deeply mattered at all.
If not for the rat race, if not for impressing your friends, if not for the nagging parent. If not for the expectations of school and society.
You start thinking if you didn’t have not those external influences around you, what would you do with your life?