On doing as the Romans do: part ii.

What does global citizenship mean? How can it help us as travellers? What separates the traveller from the tourist? How can we develop those traits in ourselves?

In a previous post, I wondered briefly whether the idea of a national border is a meaningful definition or just an arbitrary political construct. After all, any country can be dissected into regions grouped by similar landscape or religion or dialect, and then further dissected into smaller components by class or political beliefs or income, and so on until we’ve deconstructed an entire nation into nothing but a collection of citizens.

Needless to say, we’ve missed something here, because national identity is definitely more than the sum of millions of unique parts. People have fought for it; people have died for it. Clearly, any definition by national borders has to contain some element of plurality, but this doesn’t necessarily weaken what it means to be a particular nationality; if anything it introduces nuance, realism and therefore strength. The one defining factor of national identity is that it brings together a large social group who have managed to identify and strengthen their common habits, interests and passions despite all of their obvious differences.

So what does it mean to be English or Vietnamese or Colombian? These are the questions we try to answer when we travel. We say that we’re going to new places, but really we’re going to meet new people and immerse ourselves in the unique culture that their ancestors developed over thousands of years. We’re going because Vietnam has a clear definition – to the Vietnamese, at least – that doesn’t rely solely on its geographical borders, and we, as outsiders, want to understand what that is.

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”Clifton Fadiman

One way to do this is by comparing everything to our own culture: a completely natural reaction, and by far the most common. This means seeking out and actively noting all the differences between our culture and theirs; we use the former as a baseline and judge the unfamiliar culture by those standards. Unintentional or not, it’s easy to see how this mindset can lead us to construct imaginary social barriers separating “us” from “them”, when really all we’ve done is to separate ourselves from a fabricated perception of people we never really got to know anyway.

The reason this type of judgement doesn’t make sense is that we’re using a false set of criteria; we are using the norms that our usual culture deems to be the right ones, perhaps the only ones. But really, who are we to say that our way is the right way, until we’ve tried someone else’s way on for size? The judgemental approach is far from ideal; speaking with and getting to know natives is better; but by far the best way to understand a particular cultural identity is to walk a mile in the shoes of a native.

Do this before you judge those people for their cultural heritage.

If you’re near Rome during Holy Week, go to the Vatican City. Even if you’re an atheist, pray with the people. Celebrate and commiserate with them in their unimaginable numbers. Meditate on your wrongdoings. Empathise with people you’ve never met. Repeat the Latin prayers, smell the incense, wish your neighbour peace. Feel what it means to be part of the ancient tradition of Catholicism. Do this before you judge those people for their religious heritage, and all the other attached connotations that take precedence in the mind of the outsider.

If you’re a female traveller visiting Egypt, by all means go to see the Pyramids at Giza and the Valley of the Kings – but do it all wearing a hijab. Try to understand why many Egyptian women view it not as a form of oppression but rather as a means of liberation. Wonder to what extent, if any, it has played a role in subjugating women’s rights in Egypt. Consider its long history and its modern-day use. It’s not compulsory and it may not even change your opinions in the long run, but at least you’ve attempted to uncover another little piece of the Egyptian female identity.

After we’ve walked the figurative mile, we’re free to compile our observations, draw our conclusions and announce our verdict accordingly – but we shouldn’t even consider doing it until we’ve lived as a part of the group that we’re about to judge. We shouldn’t let the facts of our lives as we know them so far preclude us from having an open and accepting mind, even when we feel that the very people we’re trying to understand wouldn’t return the favour. We have been accepted into their home; we have a responsibility to be good guests.

What happens when we stubbornly continue to observe our usual customs in a new country?

Whether or not we decide to live by these ideas, we should take time to consider what happens when we stubbornly continue to observe our usual customs in a new country. At best we are signalling our differences, drawing a thick line in the cultural sand between ourselves and our hosts. At worst, we are being outright offensive and ignorant of the very people we wanted to understand. It’s simply not possible to travel without affecting the local people that we meet along the way; real life is not a zoo, in which the exotic and the unknown are shielded from consumers.

As in every situation, we should use our common sense to decide which aspects of the local culture we want to take part in; generally, concerns of safety can be easily separated from cultural bias for this purpose. Travelling is dangerous for so many reasons, but the accidental development of our global citizenship isn’t one of them. It’s scary talking to strangers, but it’s even scarier being one of those strangers: do it anyway.


Read part i of this series here.

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