It is an unfortunate truth, sometimes at least, that wherever we go we take ourselves with us when we do. It is also true, whether or not equally fortunately or not, that we take a bit of wherever we go along with us as well. Travel is often celebrated for the way that it can open our minds to how other people do things. For some people at least, it is assumed that travel will put an end to one’s provincial ways and lead to a cultural relativism by which we see that the ways of other people are just as right as our own. For other people, travel only confirms us more strongly in our own belief in the rightness of our ways and makes us even more hostile to the alien other that we have witnessed personally and thus are more highly motivated to destroy than we would otherwise be on the basis of mere rumor or report. As human beings we respond unpredictably to our encounter of other people and their alien ways, and while some people are motivated to a greater fondness for other people and their ways as a result of personal acquaintance, other people become more rigid and more close-minded as a result of having witnessed the way that other people live.
It is not necessary for us to condemn either those whose interest in and familiar with foreign ways leads them to view their own national or local ways as being too provincial or those who grow more fond of their normal ways of doing things after having been acquainted with the wider world. Speaking personally, at least, I know both tendencies to exist depending on what aspects of foreign culture are being referred to. In the course of my own travels I have been very appreciative of the beautiful scenes I have seen on many lands, found a great deal of interest in the stories and histories and cuisine and music of other places that has certainly opened my mind to possibilities, and have met many people whose drive to better themselves and find a place in this world where they receive the respect of others to mirror my own personal quest for honor and respect. In that sense, at least, my travels have reminded me that certain core aspects of my own personality are not merely the result of my experiences but are at least fundamentally accessible to people from a great many places who have the same hunger for personal distinction as well as quest for knowledge that I do. To that extent, at least, I hope I have become less provincial in assuming these to be limited only to someone of my own background. That said, my experience and observation of the ways of other people has occasionally inflamed me to great frustration and irritation, no less than was seen by Paul when he saw the idolatrous ways of the ancient Athenians. Familiarity breeds appreciation and contempt both, depending on whether something is judged as a matter of taste or a matter of deep import.
And I suspect this sort of approach is not too uncommon. Among the earliest ways in which we gain an appreciation of the other is through their cultural ways that we may view of interest even if those ways are not our own. Among the brethren of Ghana, for example, those of us who visited there in the summer of 2000 danced along with them in a way that fit their own cultural attitudes to worship if not our own. If it felt odd, it did not feel wrong, at least. Genres of music and food dishes easily find acceptance among enough people to entrench themselves in new areas, and provide the first ways for people to become familiar with the other in a non-threatening way. Later on, of course, shared experiences in the workplace and in serving our communities and societies lead us to understand that what we thought was an alien other is someone who we can accept as a peer and as one of our own, which is how many of the European people originally thought strange and unusual became “white” in the sense of being entirely acceptable to the ordinary American population. I believe this will be so of a great deal of our contemporary Latino population as well, that they will be able to blend in happily with the rest of us, so long as language does not remain a permanent issue. It is only those whose otherness continually provokes us who cannot eventually pass into an accepted place of mutual fond feeling and respect and regard.
One thing that travel does, if we have any degree of self-reflection, is to remind us that we are also the other to someone else. Most of our lives, if we remain within areas where we are the majority and where most other people are people not unlike ourselves in habits and views and attitudes, we can come to the comfortable (if erroneous) conclusion that the way we think and act and behave is normal in the world as a whole because it is normal in the small part of the world we happen to be most familiar with. When we travel, though, it quickly becomes obvious, and this is especially true if we travel outside of secluded resorts and gain an understanding of how people live in ordinary places, that we are others whose ways are entertaining and curious to those around us. And just as we are led to try to understand and make sense of the strangeness of the places in which we find ourselves, other people seek to understand and make sense of the strangeness that we present to them. From their observations of us they try out their folk psychology skills to see how the farang or the obruni behaves, and are likely to be about as insightful with regards to us as we are in regards to them, with the same degree of partiality in what we happen to see. And while we may have some intellectual awareness of the limited nature of our observation and experience, this becomes increasingly obvious as we travel and recognize not only the alien nature of our world, but also of ourselves as well.