Traveling without a Passport
"The original question of desire is not directly 'What do I want?', but 'What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?'"
- Slavoj Zizek, Plague of Fantasies
During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I flew off to Aix-en-Provence for a language immersion program. My first four nights taught me a few lessons.
First, you cannot subsist solely off of baguettes and Nutella. Second, you won’t gain fluency in French by trying to memorize every line of dialogue in Amélie.
All of my carefully cultivated self-cloistering mechanisms wouldn't work here, in a town celebrated for its quaint charm and artistry (painter Paul Cézanne famously produced some of his best works here).
The program consisted of 2 boys and 40 girls; my graduating high school class had 78 boys and 0 girls.
The locals were very open with their kisses, touches, and embraces; I don’t think I have ever seen my parents kiss or even hug each other.
People in Aix didn't speak much English; I spoke academic French, which was great if someone asked for my thoughts on Voltaire or Camus, but pretty useless at lunch at a stranger’s house.
So as I, Ostrich Ammar, sat in the darkness watching the opening scene of Amélie for the seventh or eighth time, stomach aching, I realized what was going on with me. Many of my unconscious habits of disengaging with uncomfortable situations had now become not only alarmingly conscious, but also ineffective.
I feared going out to the market to grab groceries or start a conversation because I feared how my errors in French or other quirkiness would negatively impact how others viewed me. Even if they couldn't care less.
The Fear of Social Rejection
This is a textbook setup for the College Kid Abroad narrative. The immersion aspect throws him for a loop; he slowly accepts this discomfort as an opportunity for growth; lingual and personal transformation ensues. He returns with a Mediterranean tan, a laid-back, slightly arrogant demeanor, and new music to show his friends.
Or maybe he doesn't lean in and has a miserable time.
Why does this happen? We can look at some of the literature for clues. In his book Others in Mind, Philippe Rochat asserts that self-consciousness is a modern syndrome in which the "self is an object to itself co-constructed in interaction with others."
"As a species, we are caught in a unique and fateful reflective loop. We have the privilege as well as the curse of being able to reflect upon ourselves, as an object unto itself, but also through the eyes of others."
Social life is an exploration of our sense of self and an encouragement of such an exploration for others. It is a mutual recognition of existence, and however successful that is leads to deeper, more intimate friendships. We are simultaneously constructing others and being constructed by others.
Rochat writes that a side effect of this "co-constructive" feature of being human is a hard-wired fear of social rejection.
Some of this is genetic, but much of it is environmental. If you believe your sense of self to come from certain accomplishments, then of course there will be anxiety about not being "good enough" if you find yourself in a group of highly accomplished individuals. If people’s expectations of you drive your sense of self, then at some level you fear their rejection.
The anxiety provoked through co-construction is why we: behave differently around different people; enjoy being regulars at coffee shops or bodegas or bars or restaurants; feel comfortable in small groups but lose footing in crowds; say things like "I'm so glad I met someone who's as weird as I am".
Getting Out of the Comfort Zone
Over time, the way we deal with this constant co-construction becomes habituated and subconscious. My relationship with myself and to others stabilizes, so then I get a person named Ammar who generally is x and does y and thinks z .
Going “abroad” shatters this habituated self and brings all of this to the conscious surface. You become rudely awakened to the superiority complexes that have kept you afloat thus far. There are no comfortable nooks you can reliably crawl back to, no previously saved versions of You that other people agree upon. Every encounter is a potential source of social rejection -- if not because of your quirkiness, then definitely because of your broken French.
Being abroad (or generally speaking, being thrown way out of your comfort zone), you have to consciously re-address your relationship with this co-construction. Will you play an active role in exploring the different ways you can experience yourself and experience others? Or will you passively accept whatever pessimistic (if convenient) idea of yourself you can conjure?
Through this process comes a more meta relationship with the self. If I am someone who is generally x and does y and thinks z , and if regularly exposing my habituated self is valuable, what should my stabilized tendencies be if I want these tendencies to keep evolving?
How to Travel Well
"Many of the patients whom [a famous psychiatrist] treated had, for one reason or another, learned as children to be over-compliant; that is, to live in ways which were expected of them, or which pleased others, or which were designed not to offend others. [...] This is what Winnicott deemed a 'false self' -- that is, a self which is based upon compliance with the wishes of others, rather than being based upon the individual's own true feelings and instinctive needs. Such an individual ultimately comes to feel that life is pointless and futile, because he is merely adapting to the world rather than experiencing it as a place in which his subjective needs can find fulfillment."
- Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self
A large part of traveling is really a way for your self to travel, to be thrown out of the context of the self it has been habituated to be.
Traveling well is to harshly reacquaint yourself with the fact that you are a constructed You (and that you have the power to construct that person however you wish).
Traveling well is also realizing that how you treat others is also constructing them. There is a responsibility in not only compassionately constructing yourself, but also compassionately constructing the people around you.
In this sense, if you’ve traveled to 10 countries but at each stop only saw the monuments and the sites, that is a singular form of travel -- the Travel of the Sightseer. The form of self-reacquaintance of a sightseer is different in quality than that of the hostel-hopper or the archaeologist or the student or the Instagramista.
Each form of travel brings with it a new rediscovery of the self, and each type does not require an expensive hotel room in a faraway land. You can travel well by more actively participating in co-construction: lunch with friends, conversations with Uber drivers, bike rides and long walks through new neighborhoods.
These days, we've delegated much of our travel instincts to newspapers, iPhones, and intellectual pursuits. Time to put away the Nutella-and-bread, dust off the bike, and start reinventing.