Students This Way: At a small temple, with a beautiful garden, in the middle of a residential area that I stumbled upon in Nagoya, Japan. The sigh says “Sutra Lesson Come This Way to Join”
Learning about Local Affairs
What I enjoy more than anything else when I visit a new place is to sit at a cafe (or a bar, a restaurant, a breakfast table, a picnic mat… you get the idea) with a local friend and just chat. I like to hear about things that matter to someone who lives there. What makes them worried, or hopeful? What gives them a sense of pride? What’s uniquely local about their experience from their perspective?
I of course like to explore, to see places and to do things. Taking in new sights and seeking new experiences are a big part of what makes travel so exciting and so special.
But often I also like to skip the seeing of places and the doing of things for a chance to spend time with a local friend, just talking about things that are part of the everyday lives of the people who call that place home.
How do today’s young people in Norway view marriage? What do second- or third-generation Japanese Brazilians in Brazil think of their ancestral home? Where do families in Greece like to go for a relaxing vacation? What do locals in this big city or that small village think of tourists?
And, I also enjoy learning about really “usual” things, like languages taught in schools, days of the week when shops are closed, where to (or not to) buy alcohol in town, how and where people like to barbecue, how to and how much to tip, what books and movies people are into… (the list goes on and on).
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I treasure the conversations that teach me that people do things differently in different places, but that there are still plenty that we share with each other despite our differences.
Ways of Life Different from Your Own
On my recent visit to Japan, I had the chance to travel down the memory lane going through old albums and boxes of things my parents kept from my childhood.
Among the things that my parents deemed too important even after twenty-plus years to throw away was this:
In Japanese schools, children learn good handwriting skills through practicing 書写 (shosha) or transcribing – with an emphasis on the form and aesthetics of the handwriting.
The above photo shows my entry to a fifth-grade shosha contest; the little gold piece of paper on the top-right corner means that it was judged one of the best.
While the fact that I used to have excellent handwriting as a fifth-grader was exciting, what struck me as even more exciting was the content of this short passage:
“When you travel, you can not only enjoy beautiful scenery but also learn about ways of life that are different from your own. Through such experience you gain new skills as it enriches your heart and broadens your perspective.”
It’s just some random passage used for the purpose of the contest, and I’m sure that back then the 5th-grader me didn’t think much of the meaning of the text.
But I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement in an almost serendipitous way; many years later, I’ve come to learn and become passionate about the exact thing that this text was talking about.
A Good Starting Point
Following the terror attack in Paris last week, many voices online were quick to point out that most of us didn’t pay much attention to the similar attack in Beirut in the same week (or other acts of terrorism in “non-Western” parts of the world in the past months).
I don’t necessarily agree with the opinions that those who expressed their desire to stand with Paris were “misguided” or “hypocritical”: the attack in Paris was a tragedy, and showing solidarity is an important way for us to react to something as tragic and senseless as this.
But the reality is that many people (myself included) learned about the Beirut bombing after the Paris attack. And – importantly – many of us reacted emotionally to that realization, feeling the need to change our relationships with the world so that we not just talk about valuing lives equally but actually live that value.
And I think that travel (the thoughtful, respectful kind) can be a way to support such change.
Of course, it’s not going to be the only solution, but it is a good starting point, because travel opens our eyes to ways of life different from our own and broadens our perspectives. And it helps us cultivate the skills of seeing both differences and similarities among cultures, and of building genuine connections with other people.
It may be naive to believe that more people traveling the world and learning to think with a broad mind will lead to positive changes – especially given the context of our times.
But as someone who has been amazed and inspired by the power of travel, I hope that one of the ways for us to continue to stand with not just Paris but with everyone affected by tragedies and injustice around the world is to continue traveling and exploring the world, learning and gaining new perspectives along the way.