I grew up in a small town in Montana where the majority of the population was white. Much of my experience with those who were different ethnically than who I am stemmed from the travels my parents would take me on. We journeyed all around the United States, road tripping or vacationing. Since I was homeschooled, we took every trip away as a chance to learn—and some of the most important lessons I took to heart was that people of other ethnicities were really not that different than I was.
But I’ve definitely come across other travelers who have mentioned that their travels have made them prejudiced toward a certain culture or ethnicity. Much of the time is starts out as,
“I thought I would love Asia/the United States/Mexico/Canada, but…”
These were travelers who had open minds before their trips, but had them changed as soon as they were immersed in another location and they were dealing with some of the challenges of being in another place. They were fully willing to see the world from another angle, but couldn’t get past cultural barriers.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t had my challenges adjusting to another culture while abroad. I loved Egypt, but it was a shock for me to realize that I couldn’t walk by myself without being harassed. My first thought was to get angry and to blame the people, but that wasn’t really fair. I had met other people in Egypt like my friend Joe who would not have thought to harass a woman alone. Instead of blaming it on the people, culture, or even myself, I decided to take it as a lesson.
There’s also a big debate going on about Chinese tourists across the travel blogging world and how these tourists choose to travel. It’s easy to get annoyed when you are stopped by a crowd of Chinese travelers taking pictures or blocking the street you need to cross, but the reality is that they are opening their minds to new cultures and experiences—something we Westerners could learn a bit about when we decide to visit new places.
Racism is a difficult topic because no one likes to admit that they might have prejudices. We all would like to believe that we are completely unbiased, or where we are from hasn’t shaped us in any way. That’s why traveling is so important—it creates an environment where you must interact with others in order to do anything. The saying “everyone is a little bit racist” is probably true, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t change your perspective. Grouping a series of individuals into a stereotype is not fair—and you’re missing out on meeting some interesting people and improving your view of the world.
Also, many of the stereotypes we associate with other cultures are born of necessity. We might get annoyed walking through the markets in Turkey, Morocco, or Southeast Asia, but we are being approached because these people need to make a living—and it is a culture where it is much harder to do so.
It’s a lot of work to constantly remain open and approach every interaction you have with someone from another culture uniquely. (One of my favorite authors, George Saunders, recommends staying so open that it hurts.) However, in order to create a better world and to serve as global ambassadors, especially now, it is necessary. As Mark Twain mentions:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”