I have spent my entire life looking at the world, rather than seeing it.
I have looked at its history through textbooks, its present through newscasts, and its future through scientific research articles. I have looked at its people through storybooks, and its cultures through language classes. But I have not yet been able to see the world, experience it in all its beauty and uniqueness – and that is something I want to change.
Growing up as a young girl whose family immigrated to America from India, I have always lived in an environment torn between two very distinct cultures. This perspective, however, has allowed me to realize that no amount of time spent reading books or watching television could ever accurately depict another country’s essence. My friends’ perceptions of India, formed from the various media they have encountered, is often either fragmentary or erroneous. Personally speaking, even after spending eight years taking Spanish language classes, learning about the culture, and reading the literature, I know I have only been exposed to a few narratives and many generalizations, which is one of the main reason I will be studying abroad in Spain next semester. The sun rises differently in every part of the world, even though it is the same sun that rises.
Countries and cultures often have a single narrative attached to them, riddled with stereotypes and false impressions created by the foreigners who weave these stories together. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED talk, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Travellers have a unique privilege that allows them to enter another person’s world, temporarily. We can experience another’s environment and lifestyle, with the safety net of a ticket back home. However, with every privilege comes a duty. Travellers to a country have the obligation of ensuring that they are not blinded by preconceived notions of its people, and that they do not project new stereotypes onto them. A visitor must not simply walk their land and eat their food and occupy their space; that is colonization. Instead, we must interact with the people themselves and constantly work to break down these ideas that have been implanted in our minds. How can we genuinely interact with other human beings if we cannot see the humanity beneath each body, or hear the story behind each face?
In a digital age where we often fail to see each other as humans, and a racialized period when many of us are dehumanized by the majority, the skill of being able to connect with other people is a crucial one. One of the main reasons I love travelling so much is this opportunity it offers to deconstruct the stereotypes that so often filter my vision, and allow me to better understand and communicate with people in general. Spending a semester studying and working in Spain, surrounded by entirely new people, speaking a language that is not even remotely native to me, will push me beyond the limits of my comfort zone, and enforce a perspective on the world that does not blindly paint people into socially constructed frames. The sun rises differently for each person in the world, even though it is the same sun that rises.
Journeying to a new place allows you to watch that sun rising from the perspective of another person in another part of the world. It allows you to hear the world rather than listen to it, and understand it rather than merely nod along to others’ stories. It allows you to see, rather than simply look. That is the beauty of travel.
By Nivita A.