“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” —T.S. Eliot
For what is it that some of us choose to drop it all and leave? To cauterize the ends of possible career paths and budding friendships, shell out hard-won cash and limited emotional energy to jet-set out of one’s comfort zone into a land of strangers?
Is it the draw of afternoons spent on balmy beaches, of evenings brimming with unpronounceable drinks and oddly spiced foods? The thrill of venturing through fragments of exotic architecture, stumbling through bursts of elaborate foreign syntax, or losing oneself in a crowd of novel strangers? Should we peel away the layers of our attraction to new environmental, culinary, and intellectual challenges and opportunities, what core motivation will we find remains to drive it all? Is it, truly, the push to explore the other? Or is it, in at least equal measure, the belief that, in exploring the other, we will actually come to understand ourselves?
In this discussion, we will explore the latter possibility, in investigating how travel to other countries allowed us to realize what we had heretofore ignored in our own.
Brian: This might be a really superficial way to start what could be a deep discussion, but I didn’t realize that raccoons are only in North America. They’re kind of like the panda of North America. I realized this at the Beijing Zoo while on a trip to China. They kept on talking about how pandas are one of the most amazing and rare animals in the world. Then I saw a raccoon at the zoo and realized that I saw them all the time in North America, which is the only place they’re found naturally. They’re really smart and famous for their prehensile hands. When I was a kid they always tore apart our trash. I kind of miss them now. Really fascinating animals. Have patches on their eyes and look like robbers.
Kelley: It took moving to a huge metropolis like Beijing, and then Seoul, to make me realize how much I had taken for granted the natural world. Blue skies. Birds in the morning and crickets at night. Thunderstorms with lightning, and rain that comes down in big droplets that leave the smell of spring. These are generally not features of big cities, regardless of what country they’re in. So it was almost a bigger shock to adapt to urban versus suburban/small-city life than it was for me to get used to the more distinctly Chinese or Korean aspects of my new societies.
Maur-Anne: I took for granted that everybody had an opinion about everything. French people keep asking “What do you think about that?” Koreans often answer “I don’t know; I’ve never thought about it.”, and it tends to annoy me. A good example would be one video I saw of Obama giving a talk in Seoul; at the end of the speech nobody asked any questions except for some Chinese guy. French people do have an opinion about everything because French people expect you to have an opinion about everything. Otherwise you’re not showing consideration. Even if you’re not sure about what you think, you’re supposed to think about it and show a little bit of effort. It’s also because French people have kind of a fear of being manipulated by society; they enjoy showing that they have critical thinking skills.
Kelley: Really? Are you sure that you’re not talking about Americans? I’ve always thought of that as being a very strong characteristic of people from the U.S.
Maur-Anne: Maybe France even more than elsewhere.
Brian: Yeah, the West has been heavily influenced by French philosophy.
Brian: That’s one thing that I appreciate about Korea. I don’t have to hear strangers’ opinions about things I don’t care about. People will just talk to you and not stop talking to you, unless you’re rude. Like waiters. I guess there is some charm though to being able to talk to strangers naturally which is not really common in Korea.
Maur-Anne: In France we contain our opinions to lively conversation and socializing.
Brian: Waiters, guys fixing things at your house. They’ll just talk to you for like an hour.
Maur-Anne: Social security and health care system; I always thought these things were normal. As a kid, I always had one free dental consultation a year. Most of the medicines are reimbursed. So I thought it was normal.
Brian: But it’s pretty cheap in Korea too.
Maur-Anne: Well say I want to take a blood test in Korea; I have to pay a lot of money.
Brian: Well, you’re not on the national insurance.
Maur-Anne: I have international insurance, and it’s still expensive. Also, cheese. I took cheese for granted.
Kelley: This might be sort of random, but I really miss being able to make friends with minimum effort. When in Beijing and Seoul, I feel extra barriers of language, culture, and the general sense of my status as an outsider boosting the activation energy required for new relationships. In some ways this makes my Chinese and Korean friends more special—as, to me, they have been more hard-won—but as someone who is already on the passive side when it comes to initiating and maintaining social bonds, I often feel a bit more lonely here than back in the United States. I never realized how easy it could be, in theory, to just strike up a conversation and find common ground with somebody—because I had never experienced before just how hard it might be in other circumstances.
Brian: Sometimes I just like being left alone. Leave me alone, guys. I’m leaving. (Brian leaves the room)
Maur-Anne : Wait, don’t go!
Kelley: Just let him go. He’s a grumpy Brian (laughs). Also on the topic of people, living in China and Korea has made me really miss the full range of racial and ethnic diversity we see back home. I remember my first time back to the U.S. after a two-year stretch in Beijing. I landed in New York and just found myself transfixed on the subway at the tapestry of humanity around me. I had never fully appreciated the cultural and aesthetic value added to my life by random strangers on the street, but now I see it as stunningly beautiful. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy diversity of style, manner, and personality in either Beijing or Seoul—it just takes a bit of people-watching to find that I can. But the ethnic diversity here is certainly of a different character and range.
Maur-Anne: People who look at me on the subway and hold their bags like I’m going to steal them made me realize how much I took for granted living as a member of the racial majority in my own society. My white friend said that people have given her the finger in the street. One time, another French girl was with me, and Koreans started speculating about how maybe she’s a prostitute who works in Itaewon. At the same time, it’s a very good experience to live somewhere as part of a racial minority. It teaches you humility.
桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.
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