Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Privilege of Traveling Abroad

First day back to school. Fourth grade. I hated this day; with its "get-to-know-yous" and "icebreaker games". But what I hated, most of all, was "sharing with the class" what I did during my summer vacation. Because while everyone else went to Disneyland or Epcot Center or San Diego, no one ever went to Hong Kong. Or abroad, for that matter. Hawaii was the most exotic destination anyone named and was met with interruptions of, "Do they speak American there?" when the state was mentioned. But I spent most of my childhood summer and winter vacations in Hong Kong. And I was so embarrassed.

"Okay!" said the teacher brightly at the front of the class. "I want you to tell me where you went on your summer vacation, what you did, and one new thing you tried. Remember, just one new thing!"

I was ten. How could I tell a roomful of ten-year-olds from a tiny, small town in western Washington, that I went to Hong Kong, watched my grandma prepare a special fish soup by buying the fish live from the fish market, and, while it was still swimming, knock it on its head once with a hard mallet before dropping it into a fragrant broth whole? How could I tell them that the "one new thing" I tried was chicken feet at dim sum and that it was delicious, and that I then went to burn paper money at my ancestors' graves and prayed that they were happy in the afterlife and that they enjoyed the feast that we laid out before them of smoked meats and vegetables? How could they understand the sticky, oppressive heat that made my skirt cling to the back of my legs when I climbed into a red, Hong Kong taxi cab and the contrast of this against the icy cold rush of air conditioning on the Hong Kong metro? Or the way the night was not silent, like the night they knew, but was constantly full of noise - men shouting, swearing, spitting, women laughing loudly, horns honking, chickens arriving at the restaurant across the street at dawn to be slaughtered?

The teacher interrupted my thoughts. "We're waiting!" she said cheerily, looking at me with a kind smile. But the other faces in the room weren't kind. 

"Um ..." I started. "I went to Hong Kong with my parents ..." I trailed off. 

"Okay!" said the teacher. "So, you were in China!" she trilled. The boy at the desk next to mine used his fingers to pull up his eyes into slits and stared at me through his newly-formed, "Chinese" eyes.

"Um, no ... actually, Hong Kong is not really ..." I tried to say, but then I faltered. I didn't feel as though I had the energy or authority to correct my teacher and explain about British imperialism and colonial rule - something my parents had explained to me when I was very young.

"That must have been such a shock to you," observed John one day, when I told him how I went to Hong Kong every year as a child. 

"What was?" I asked, confused.

"Well," he said. "To be dropped into such a cosmopolitan and sophisticated environment only to be yanked back to an entirely different world when you returned home. It must have been very conflicting for you as a child."

"Yes," I said. "It was. It was confusing. I had feelings when I returned from Hong Kong, jet-lagged and weary, that I didn't understand. I missed it so much - the hustle and bustle, the Cantonese voices on TV. I remember coming back and turning on the news, only to hear it in American English and feeling so disappointed. When the Cantonese talk-show hosts spoke, I felt like they were speaking to me, as though I were special because I understood. I almost expected them to wink at me."

The desire to travel starts somewhere; somewhere deep inside your belly. Sometimes, it starts with anger. And that is how it started with me - in that fourth-grade classroom, where I felt trapped, misunderstood, and totally, completely, confused. My parents, wanting to foster a sense of wanderlust in me, paid for a school trip to England when I was thirteen, where I promptly fell head-over-heels in love with cobblestones, red telephone booths, and the English countryside.

From that point on, I knew I didn't want to stay in my small town forever. I worked extremely hard in junior high and high school - to the point of a nervous breakdown - hoping that I would be accepted to a prestigious college on the East Coast and as far away from "home" as possible. I believed that this would be my ticket out of Small Town, U.S.A. - and I was right. Nearly eight years after my first trip to England, I returned again: this time, as a visiting student at Oxford. And after that, as a graduate student at York.

When I moved to London and stepped onto the first rung of my publishing career ladder, I had a teeny tiny budget. I lived in East London (before it was trendy and cool) and didn't eat out much except for the occasional takeaway at my local Indian restaurant. A Toptable set-menu offer at a high-end restaurant in Central London was considered a treat but it certainly was not the norm.

But then my life changed as I moved up in my career and John moved up in his. Suddenly, we began to eat almost exclusively at gastropubs and made use of Toptable almost every Friday night. Soon, we abandoned Toptable altogether and frequented newly-opened restaurants and pop-ups that I'd read about online. When John traveled for work, I tagged along too - to Paris, Madrid, and New York. When it was cold and grey in February, we jetted off to Thailand for a week spent lounging in a private pool villa in Koh Samui or riding on the back of a city moped in Hanoi, Vietnam.

"Oh my goodness," I said to John as I sipped my coffee and looked up at the Flatiron Building in New York last week. "I haven't been this excited about a trip since ... since I went snorkeling in Koh Pha Ngan! How is this my life?" I asked, gesturing to my surroundings.

One evening, as I was walking home from dinner with a friend, I reflected on the restaurant experience I'd just had. Five years ago, I would have thought that the restaurant I'd just eaten at was the best I'd ever tried. Now, I filed it away with the other, forgettable restaurants that were simply "mediocre", if not "just okay". The chips (fries) were not triple-cooked, I reflected. The steak was not as buttery soft as the one I ate in Paris a few weeks ago.

What had happened to me?

I received a lot of comments on my blog post yesterday about the mostly negative reactions I receive from people in the U.S. when I reveal that I live in London. But two comments stood out to me; particularly one from my mother, who named something I had failed to address: privilege. I had quickly forgotten how privileged I was to travel in the way that I do and to live my London life the way I do. I had forgotten that - while my £17.99 pork belly with a savoy cabbage slaw and truffle-infused mashed potato was mouth-wateringly delicious and I couldn't understand why anyone could say the food was "real nasty" in London when this was available - that my experience of London is not the norm. Zone 1, central London living, with frequent trips abroad spent in nice hotel rooms, classical music concerts in the evenings and food market stall browsing on the weekends is not the norm.

Sure, it's easy to criticize or sniff at people who haven't been abroad (if I had a penny for every, "Did you know that only X% of Americans own a passport? Can you believe it?" I've heard ...), but traveling abroad is expensive; and to do it well is a luxury.

So, that pity and bewilderment I hear in peoples' voices when they ask me, "You live in London? Why?" ... that pity comes from somewhere deep too. If they don't understand, it is because they are unable to understand. Sometimes this is due to an unwillingness to understand (prejudice), but often it is because they have not been afforded the privilege to understand (ignorance) - as I have. 

And I should check my privilege.

What do you think? Do you travel abroad? A lot? How have your experiences of international travel changed or shaped you?



  1. Thanks for this post - it's great to hear some honesty and it did make me double-take. Yes I travel, and yes these days I kind of consider it the norm. And yes I quite often probably take this privilege for granted. I guess that's one of the great things about blogging - being able to share the experience with other people. I feel strangely grounded this evening.
    Claire xx

    1. Hi Claire, thanks so much for your comment! I totally agree with you about being able to share experiences with others through blogging ... lovely to know that you're a travel fanatic too! xx

  2. Beautiful post; especially the paragraph beginning, "I was ten." It's amazing that being or doing something "different" is scoffed at from our earliest years... then, as we grow up, we (well some of us) realize how fortunate we truly are to be ourselves and to have had those unique experiences.

    Neither side of my family has a whole helluva lot, so I've always been aware, to some degree at least, that travel in general is a privilege. One thing that I was shocked to discover was that more of my family had been abroad than I suspected. And not the family that might be considered "bougie," but the family that lives in the insect-heavy, knee-high grasses of North Carolina next door to siblings and cousins. They had those experiences, but you'd never know unless they told you. It did stick with them, though, and learning that touched me.

    At my going away party, a great uncle of mine who was stationed in Germany a long time ago told me about the wonderful people he'd met, the things he'd done, and he proudly spoke the German he remembered from back then. I bet he'd go back if he could. Even as adults, we're encouraged to bury the parts of ourselves that make us stand out, which is a shame because it's when people share those unique experiences that they visibly light up. The way you described the connection you felt to the Cantonese speakers on TV, or this:"...and that I then went to burn paper money at my ancestors' graves and prayed that they were happy in the afterlife..." These are gorgeous experiences that clearly had a huge impact on you. And now you're living an adventure, everyday, the way so many people probably wish they were. So it's not just traveling abroad, but LIVING abroad that is a privilege; permanently weaving yourself into that grand adventure you began.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but this post really hit me :D

    1. Thank you for your beautiful comment, Maslo. I'm so grateful to you for sharing your experiences with me! I just love what you said about burying parts of ourselves that make us stand out ... I've been working on "being more of my authentic self" lately, which simply means living more honestly and being more true to myself - so your comment really hit home with me as well. And you're right: living abroad is a privilege and a magnificent adventure. I hope you are enjoying (?) your time abroad as well!

  3. You know what? I kinda wish I hadn't traveled so much. Of course, I wouldn't change my life choices even if I had the option. However, I work with women who, though are really great and clever, have never done anything with their lives. They didn't go to uni, go to basic places for holidays. They're excited by everything - one of them runs into the office every day to tell us how many days it is until she goes to Japan for the first time. While she's buying special backpacks and shoes for her trip, I think about how I tend to book a last minute trip to India, New York etc, fling things into my bag and go. No rushing around fussing. So in a way I envy her. Everything is still special and magical.

    1. Really interesting perspective, Charlotte! For me, I continue to be stunned by the new places I'm so lucky to discover ... coming back from a holiday feels like another world to me!

  4. Great post :-) Your childhood of travelling sounds amazing, and your description of Hong Kong is how I would imagine it to be if I closed my eyes- it's somewhere I really, really want to go. I hope we can still afford to travel with our little ones as they grow, I think it's such a gift and is totally a privilege. I am so torn with how we raise them sometimes though. We are (touch wood) pretty well off, and so can afford to travel and do nice things with them, but whilst I want them to experience as much as possible, and don't want them to get blase about how they live and how lucky they are in comparison to a lot of children. I want them to be hungry for these experiences and work their way into the world. At 2 and 3 they eat out lots and have London as their playground. Freddie is innocently casual when he says "let's go to Pizza Express today, Mummy" as it is a fairly common thing for them. I often wonder if we should just keep these things for treats, but then part of me thinks that it's more normal to eat out now and food (not just PE ;-) ) is a good thing to experience? So hard to know what to do for the best as I would never want them to be spoiled x

    1. Thanks so much, Becky. I don't think you have anything to worry about! You have such a terrific awareness and understanding of the environment that your children are growing up in and I am sure that you are bringing your children up to have the same! It *is* more normal to eat out nowadays, I think, and Pizza Express is always a treat in my book (especially the dough balls. And the chocolate brownie ice cream dessert. Yeah ... I love it). But in all seriousness, I absolutely think it is possible to provide the world for your children, but raise them to be equipped with that awareness that not everyone may share the same experiences. You are an example of that! xx

  5. Judging by your posts, I don't think there's any chance of your becoming jaded about travelling (loved your Sicily posts, BTW; had a friend who lived in Modica who adored the place, so appreciated the virtual visit. Perhaps you will return there for a more leisurely look someday). With your keen eye, broad sympathies and capacity for enjoyment, you'll always find something of interest.
    Living abroad marked me in so many ways, nearly all positive - except for the fact that I now find my own country rather unpalatable (;-)); but, hey ho, it has to be borne for the time being.

    1. Hi Min, thank you so much for stopping by to read my posts and for leaving your comment. I visited your blog briefly and your time in Nice sounded wonderful! I do experience "reverse culture shock" when I return to the States for visits. I forget how things "work" there, so to speak.

      I definitely would like to return to Sicily for a longer stay in Modica and to explore the rest of the towns nearby (e.g. Ragusa, Noto, etc.)!

  6. LOVE your post! Only just discovered your blog and think it's fab. Just wondered what app you use to add the writing to your photos? (:

    1. Hi Amy, thank you! It's the Beautiful Mess app, which is free (I think!). It's great for making photo collages as well - I use it a lot in Instagram. Another free service you can use which is better suited to desktop use (since you have more control and can add more detail than in Beautiful Mess) is the photo editor in PicMonkey. Hope that helps!


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