In 2004, I traveled “around the world.”
At the time, zipping through six countries in three months seemed incredible. I (obnoxiously) emailed everyone I knew to let them know how amazing it was. I could think of nothing better than tramping across oceans and continents to experience alien foods, languages, and cultural practices. After that trip, I was hooked. What followed was an insatiable desire to see more, do more, experience more.
In retrospect, I realize that my perspective on travel abroad was severely myopic. I only saw the glittering surfaces of the countries I visited. I experienced the best tourist attractions each country could offer, something even the locals could not afford to do.
Working in Japan, however, shifted my perspective entirely. After a few months’ living there, I got over the initial awe I felt when I had seen my first orange torii gate. Eating Japanese food with disposable chopsticks became routine. After all, you could even get it in the konbini! I began to see Japan for what it was really like. A regular country with regular people doing regular things like going to school, going to work, going to the supermarket, getting sick, relaxing on weekends. I started to bow like everyone else and say strange things like “douzo” “onegai shimasu” “hai” and “daijobou.” I covered my mouth when I laughed and chewed my lunch. I never, ever ate while walking (something I do frequently in Trinidad and Tobago). Slipping in and out of inside shoes was no longer a hassle. I didn’t bat an eyelid when I saw folks eating cake with chopsticks. Seeing people on public transport and classrooms with their faces half-shrouded in white gauze masks didn’t send me into a panic attack.
Trinidadian writer, Sam Selvon, writes in his novel, An Island is a World:
“People are the same all over the world…It does not matter where you are, you encounter sadness, happiness, love, hate. An island is a world, and everywhere that people live, they create their own worlds.”
Ain’t that the truth?
Travel writer Pico Iyer talks about the art of traveling within instead of traveling without. He says:
“…One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. You take an angry man to the Himalayas; he just starts complaining about the food. And I found that the best way that I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was oddly, by going nowhere, just by sitting still. And of course sitting still is how many of us get what we crave and need in our accelerated lives, a break. But it was also the only way that I could find to sift through the slideshow of my experience and make sense of the future and the past.”
So I learned to appreciate the pinpricks of incongruity in my days. Those moments when I felt transient, rootless, ephemeral. Like when students, parents, and teachers called me sensei. Sitting still allowed me to really observe and imbibe Japan, the Japan that doesn’t exist on glossy tourist websites and swish Instagram pics. The Japan with real problems: workaholism, alcoholism, kids with severe behavioral problems, frustrated folks, neglected old people. It is only when we settle down in a corner and think about our experiences that we can truly appreciate them. It is only in the stillness that we achieve those rare moments of clarity. It is only when we slow down that we know where we have been and where we are going next.
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