Handling Awkwardness While Traveling

Sumo Wrestlers, Marseille

If travel allows us to escape the banality of routine, it also forces us to challenge our conceptions of normal by presenting us with the new, the contradictory, the frustrating. I think that if we’re traveling well, escape will be the short-term gain, but the long-term win will be the challenge of discovery. Accessing and enjoying that challenge requires us a bit of mental preparation, however.

Awkward Data

Whether it’s the Ozarks in Southern Missouri or the Himalayan foothills in Nepal, every experience in a new place provides us with the opportunity to collect a little more data about the world—to broaden our sample size, to force ourselves to new conclusions about the common binds that hold humanity together. Collecting this data, however, can be awkward…

Stranger (in French): Where are you from?
Me (in broken French): the United States
Stranger: but… what’s your background?
Me: I’m African-American and white.
Stranger: African from where?
*silence*
Me: …ummm… *forgets all vocabulary*… slaves?

With more context, I was able to gain some interesting information from this exchange. Members of the African diaspora in France usually know exactly where they (or their family members) are from and identify strongly with that country or city—so much so that interested white French locals appreciate differences between these identities.

Photo Credit: Harya Tarekegn

Reacting: Explain or Disdain

So, in some ways, collecting data is the easy part—the hard part is reacting in the moment. In the example above, I was tempted to just keep on walking when I thought I’d have to explain the entire history of slavery to a stranger… let’s be honest, I only stayed to explain because stranger was French and hot. But, attractiveness aside, it’s important not to skip on these teachable moments. It turned out that this stranger was well aware of the history of the African diaspora in the United States, but had never thought about what it would be like to ask a person of that heritage about their background. Totally understandable

View from Cours Julien, Marseille

View from Cours Julien, Marseille

Some situations simply aren’t teachable moments, however. Reacting to difficult confrontations in new contexts—without showing disdain or sacrificing self-respect—can prove even more challenging. At a school where I worked abroad, I was told, “You’re very handsome… for a black person.” I couldn’t go HAM like I wanted to because I had to return to work at the school. I also couldn’t make that a teachable moment because I didn’t have the patience. But I needn’t have sacrificed my self-respect; I could have explained (as I would have to anyone in a more familiar environment) why a comment like that was hurtful. Responding to challenging, awkward data (or just rude people in new contexts—who are usually outliers) requires some strategies for maintaining self-respect.

Share Conclusions, Not Data  

My first email to my loved ones as a Peace Corps Volunteer contained a list of all the negative, difficult experiences I’d had with people from my new host country. Not cute, for 80 reasons. First of all, it’s just not useful to spread negativity around. More importantly, data without context is just nonsense—my loved ones lacked the context to come to the more informed conclusions that I eventually reached, and I did my host country and my loved ones a disservice by presenting my experience in this way. When you return from a trip—be it a 2 night stay on the other side of the state or a 2 year adventure on the other side of the globe—consider sharing your conclusions rather than just your data. Chances are they will be positive, if challenging, and inspiring, if difficult.

Author: Casey Weston

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