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?