Here’s an “eye-opener”: Removing the tired cliches about traveling

NICK IRVIN / COURTESY

Travel has more to offer than simply another story

Over the summer, I traveled around Thailand and Malaysia by train and bus. It was a real doozy of a trip, but one hyphenated adjective I refuse to use is “eye-opening.” Travelers need to do better than resort to overused language that reflects pomposity and largely ignores the true meaning of travel –– that it’s different for everyone and just as necessary, too.

The statement that traveling “opens your eyes” is rather banal. It adds nothing to the conversation because undergoing any “eye-opening” experience has become a cliche in itself –– almost as fashionable as worshiping Harambe was last year. Such undertakings, or at least the appearance of them, create a system of playing catch-up that originates out of a yearning for a similar trip to tell a similar story to experience a similar opening of the eyes. This romantic view impedes our ability to think critically about why we’re even traveling in the first place.

When we talk to a traveler who has just returned from a trendy trip abroad, it’s hard not to feel a pang of envy as we listen to how this person was fortunate to climb mountains and traverse rickety bridges in the jungle while we stayed in our beds and watched “Game of Thrones.” Who wouldn’t want this same story to tell?

More often than not, however, such travel stories can delve into the cliches that only reveal the manifestations of missed opportunities. Expressions of gratitude and good fortune don’t provide the critical nuance that traveling (and traveling well) brings to those who seek out another culture for culture’s sake. Yes, we can be grateful for our experience, but isn’t there something more to bring to the table?

Traveling is one of the best modes of education, period. It enables us to witness instead of read. It makes us reflect and decide rather than dally over the trivialities of theory in a classroom. The process of a journey, whether to a distant land or to a neighboring town, requires a dose of courage that proves more about our capacity for vulnerability than almost anything else.

But reducing our travels to a mere “eye-opening” experience is lazy. Traveling is more than an idea that reflects our perceived capacity for learning. It is learning. Without it we cannot bridge divides or work to attain common, worldwide goals. Our eyes are already open by the simple thought of leaving our homes to encounter something bigger than ourselves. When we embrace the idea of change, we have taken that crucial step forward.

While opening eyes is in vogue, opening the heart and mind are still at the back of the experiential lexicon. Embracing the intellectual and reflective side of an experience away from home is just as important as the emotional and compassionate side. Our capacity to think about the whys and the hows of a place culturally or structurally divergent from domestic reality allows real learning to take place –– a kind that emphasizes human beings as people rather than as data points in a book. You can open your eyes to alternate standards of living or the delicacies of a local cuisine, but can you open the heart and the mind that form prerequisites for true knowledge?

Semantically speaking, these linguistic distinctions may seem nitpicky. But I truly believe that approaching travel with the right mindset is vital to bridging the culture gap that Americans (anecdotally) often have difficulty shaking off. Whether our lackadaisical approach to foreign travel is due to America’s vast interior or its island status between two massive oceans, or something else entirely, we can help to remedy it by adopting a mindset more conducive to a globalized perspective.

A famous man once said that travel “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” That man was Mark Twain, and those people were Americans. Could there be anything more relevant today?

 

Written by: Nick Irvin –– ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

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