It so happened that this evening I was interviewed by a random fledgling podcast host for a discussion about travel and languages and penpals and all, subjects I am interested in, and during the discussion I discussed some of the experience I had in traveling and living in other countries. Among the things that strikes me when I think about my experiences as a traveler is the strange power that one has as a tourist. I would like to discuss this power, as it is something that I am not sure that I have always deserved as a traveler, and it is certainly a power that is often unexamined by those who have it and sometimes resented by those who see it.
My first experience in traveling internationally was as a child when I went to the country of Trinidad & Tobago shortly after a coup attempt by some Libyans. During my visit to the country I remember a cabinet level official for tourism coming to our fellowship and thanking us for being willing to travel to the country despite their recent unpleasantness and to tell others that it was safe to go to this country. I was a child at the time, and puzzled that my opinion could hold so much weight in the world. Who am I that people would listen to me that Trinidad & Tobago was a nice place for tourists to go. I could and did express my own experiences about the country and its people and beautiful scenery and all that, but to think that I had such power over the fate of nations, even small nations, is always something that has greatly puzzled me.
And yet I have repeatedly found for both good and ill that I have held power as an expressive traveler in foreign lands. This experience in Trinidad & Tobago if early and certainly formative, is by no means unusual. To be sure, I still consider myself more or less an obscure traveler, and when I am traveling alone or with my immediate family I do not think of myself as having the profile to draw a great deal of attention from others. In Thailand, admittedly, I drew more attention than that, but there were specific reasons for that attention, and even there I found it highly puzzling that as a mere blogger that I could have such influence on the safety and well-being of a nation. It is strange to me that I have found myself to be seen by other people as being so potentially threatening, when that is no part of my self-image at all, but if one can be seen as being potentially powerful for the good, then it stands to reason that such people can also do great harm if they choose to do so.
What is the power of an outsider? We tend to think of powerful people as insiders, and certainly people seek the status of insiders in order to gain power within communities, societies, institutions, and the like. Yet outsiders can have great power because they come from elsewhere and are not insiders and represent, in some way, how the outside world sees us. A friendly outsider who takes an interest in what we do and what we are saying and how we behave, in our cuisine and art and culture is a sign that the things we do and have and create are of value to the outside world and have some sort of prestige. Outsider have power because they reveal to us how we look to the outside world, and that is not something one can know from the inside. One can only know it by interacting with the outside, and to the extent that we have pleasant interactions with outsiders, we feel better about our place within the world, because we know that even those people who do not share our background and perspective still appreciate who we are and what we bring to the table.
This power is obviously double-edged. When we interact with others and they do not like us and are critical about our perspective and approach, we can take that very negatively. The thought that who we are and how we think and behave are viewed negatively by the outside world is something that can make us fairly hostile to those outsiders and to view them and their critique in a particularly hostile and unpleasant fashion. It must be remembered that to be an outsider, one does not necessarily have to come from a distant land or speak a different language, but rather one just has to be outside of the in-group that one happens to be identifying with. The recognition of commonality in the face of obvious difference is comforting, and something we often relish and appreciate. The converse, though, the recognition that outsiders may mistrust us or dislike us, often makes us feel very unhappy about those people who criticize and mock us, and there may be repercussions for such mutual dislike. We must be aware of the fact that we are all, whether we want to be or not, or whether we like it or not, ambassadors of the groups to which we belong, and our conduct shapes the way that people think of the in-groups that we happen to be a part of. That power is a great one, but it is also something that we do not often reflect upon as belonging to us, yet it is a power that others cannot help but to recognize, and often to fear.