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Travel: Introspection Through The Eyes Of An Outsider - With A Free Essay Review
In her poem “Questions of Travel” Elizabeth Bishop contemplates motives for travel. She considers that travel may be inspired by lack of imagination and offers that remaining home may be a better option. There are, certainly, many reasons to travel and staying at home may not always be the best option. Earth is a vast place offering endless places to travel and the reasons for doing so may be out of necessity or desire. Longing to get away one may find themselves vacationing for a week at a Jamaican resort. Perhaps one wants to absorb another culture and decides to backpack through Europe. Maybe a family obligation calls one across the country or work demands a brief stay in Tokyo. No matter how or why we travel, we inevitably impose our norms onto another culture. Whether we are tourists for a few days or traveling overseas for half of a year it becomes impossible, once we leave our home, to ignore the fact that life is different. Language is incomprehensible; food is strange; motorists drive on the opposite side of the road. While we lose many of our daily comforts travel is motivated by what we stand to gain. The act of travel allows one to not only gain a better understanding of another culture but also presents an opportunity to learn more about their own culture and, consequently, themselves as an individual. In an approving summarization of philologist Erich Auerbach (who, in his work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, quotes from The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor) erudite scholar Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, articulates:
“The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance” (259).
Travelling gives one the ability – through the eyes of outsiders – to step out and glimpse into one’s own culture thus receiving insights and perspectives they may not have previously detected as they have spent most, if not all, of their life immersed in their daily customs. One may be sightless to specific details since these details have long been part of everyday life – for most Americans, the act of smiling at a passing stranger is not out of the ordinary. Furthermore, when, for the first time, one is able to fully recognize their daily behaviors, they begin to learn about themselves. When one matures within a given society, most if not every aspect of that society in embedded in them like an instinct. Learned impulses such as reaching for a fork instead of chopsticks, for instance, are basic behaviors shared with one’s neighbors and isn’t viewed as an oddity until one has journeyed and become a part of the minority. But a traveler learns aspects of another culture which could not have been learned from film, literature, or even in a lecture hall. Travel gives one the ability to learn about their world, themselves, and others; I do not believe, however, that a thorough command of any of these, most particularly the last, is possible.
Travel is not at all times an act of sheer desire. Prolific American writer James Baldwin composed poignant personal essays about his experiences living abroad. Baldwin’s experience in his essay The New Lost Generation is rather unique as he did not journey across the world to consume another culture. Nor was he in search of self-discovery; he left to survive. In doing so, he gained a perspective about his country that he may not have otherwise understood. Though he was caught off-guard by the difficulty of living in Paris, France (France did not turn out to be the refuge that he had anticipated) his animosity towards specific aspects of his native country became more precise as he stayed away. During a time of blatant civil injustice in the United States, Baldwin felt – as an African American – he would perish in the toxic environment – if not from drugs or violence, then by suicide. By leaving he discovered additional distressing features about the United States. Baldwin wrote, rather pointedly, about his observations as observed through his fresh eyes as an American expatriate living in France.
“Europeans refer to Americans as children in the same way that American Negroes refer to them as children, and for the same reason: they mean that Americans have so little experience–experience referring not to what happens, but to who–that they have no key to the experience of others. Our current relations with the world forcibly suggest that there is more than a little truth to this. What Europe still gives an American–or gave us–is the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself” (312).
James Baldwin gained – as frequently one does when leaving one’s home to embrace a foreign nation– an understanding of what can be learned about our his native land through the eyes of someone else. One risks losing so much when leaving home. One lets go of daily comforts, family, emotional, and physical security. But if allowed, and indeed one should allow, one can gain an insight of one’s world – through the view of another. To better understand one’s own home one should look at it from the outside like a psychiatrist or a trusting companion one seeks for advice; this can be done through the eyes of an outsider. Though that outsider may never fully understand your culture – one may never truly understand a culture they are not part of – they can provide (or point out) insights that one is unable to grasp on their own.
Scholars dedicate generous amounts of time and effort towards studying other cultures and successfully learn a great deal. This ability to study others does not, however, equate to the ability to truly understand them. Living amongst others in the eyes, not of a tourist, but of a human learning to coexist with other humans can provide a traveler – who decides to adopt an alien culture – with an understanding of that society they could never have developed any other way. One can debate whether this understanding is an accurate perception; it is, however, a unique perspective which requires actual contact. After visiting Tangier, Morocco Paul Bowles, an American music composer and writer, decided to settle there. In writing he admits fascination and became, as much as an outsider can, part of their culture. Bowles spent over five decades in Tangier; he died, in fact, amongst the Moroccans. Bowles’ understanding of their way of life, whether accurate or a misconception, stemmed from his direct contact with them.
“It has taken me more than two decades, for instance, to realize that the Moslem’s incredible aptitude for putting mechanical things out of order was due to something other than simple failure to understand the principles of physics, or that his disinclination to think in any way of the future was other than the result of a childlike preoccupation with the present moment, combined with an unusually carefree nature. But of course I was quite mistaken” (97).
His assessment in Letter from Tangier, of the Moslems of Morocco, is revised from twenty years of daily intimate contact. Even observations, I should note, from someone who has immersed himself in an alien culture may be skewed. What he initially saw as foolishness turned out to be deliberate actions rooted to deeper logic than he could understand. However, Bowles’ view is personal. At the same time, his views are formed with bias – bias that may not impossible to overlook – which define acceptable behavior. Bowles’ mind matured outside of Tangier. He arrived with a separate set of values and he could not fully understand Moroccans. An adult mind suddenly experiencing a separate culture is like a child who, for a single night, joins a new household during a sleepover. For the outsider, this experience is merely a glimpse of someone else’s life. One can’t hope to construct a true account of how those people live at all times.
Still, one can travel to another country to connect with a culture and, with the best of intentions, fall short to reach this goal. Morally inclined travelers, who wish to remain ethical struggle with pretenses of how there are supposed to feel. For instance, as an ethical traveler, the act of providing aid for a destitute nation did not deliver the expected satisfaction. An experience initially envisioned to be a time of deep introspection and great cultural appreciation turned out, unfortunately, to be a hectic and tiresome ordeal. Months later, as a tourist on a family vacation, a relationship is sparked with a native in a subsequent country. This unexpected connection triggers a newfound appreciation and understanding of this culture. Therefore the high affinity one once had for the aforementioned destitute nation is transferred onto another. A well-planned trip to experience a particular culture, no matter how open-minded, can be a failure in that respect.
The ideas and customs of an alien place may contrast too strongly with preconceived ethical attitudes. Thus one will find it all but impossible to shed all of their preconceptions. This should be considered if one is unsure whether to remain to travel abroad. Furthermore, while one should travel is a positive goal; one must remain open to the fact that each situation may have a turn of unexpected events.
I find your approach to introducing your subject a bit leisurely; I don’t think the first several sentences contribute much to the essay. That kind of leisurely approach would be more appropriate, I think, to a magazine article than to an academic paper with an interesting argument to make. This is a minor quibble, however, for your essay does have an interesting argument: that one needs to leave one’s home and adopt the perspective of an outsider in order to understand one’s own culture. That’s an interesting argument because you are also claiming, at the same time, that the outsider “may never truly understand a culture they are not part of.”
Although some of the specific examples used (forks/chopsticks; driving on left/driving on right) are slightly banal examples of the phenomenon, I think it is true that we tend to unthinkingly adopt, as you indicate, the habits and values of our own culture, and if it is true that we don’t think about these things, then there are grounds for being suspicious of the idea that one must be a part of a culture in order to understand it. Your essay alludes to but does not directly address the apparent contradiction between the idea that we cannot understand other cultures and the idea what can better understand our own culture by adopting an outsider’s perspective.
Instead, you seem more or less to abandon the interesting line of argument dealing with the insights available from an outsider’s perspective in order to explain the more common notion that we can never fully understand other cultures. Your essay, then, seems to be divided into two parts, which don’t really cohere. Perhaps that problem could be solved with a slightly different way of organizing the essay (e.g, something along these lines: On the one hand, we can never really understand another culture for a number of reasons; on the other hand, there’s a sense in which we can understand other cultures better than those who belong to that culture, just as we can understand our own culture by adopting the outsider’s perspective). That’s a less than ideal solution, but (if you want the interesting claim to be the focus and the essay to be coherent) I think you do need to subordinate the claim about our inability to understand other cultures to the claim about our inability to understand our own culture without stepping outside it; or, you need your whole essay to focus on the latter claim. There is certainly room for elaboration, beginning for instance, with an clarification of the significance of the Said quotation.
P.S., I was unsure what you were trying to achieve with the final two paragraphs. Their argument is unclear and perhaps unnecessary.