I'm on a solo trip in Hong Kong, and I'm out in the Lan Kwai Fong district with three friends from my hostel. We’re drinking pints from the 7-Eleven on the street, right outside tons of bars. It’s apparently the thing to do. It's a nice night out, and we decide to walk back to our hostel. A few minutes in, police approach us and calmly motion us to one side of the road. Welllll, not exactly all of us. They forcefully grab my friend by the arm and push him up against a building. He tells us very carefully, "Guys! I need you to focus! Make sure they don't put anything in my pockets!". Dumb. Founded. He yells, "You have to make sure they don't plant drugs on me!" Wait, what the Lan Kwai Fudge is happening? Then, OF COURSE, it dawns on us.
He's black. We're white. It's China.
After a full morning of seeing the majestic Taj Mahal in the sweltering Indian heat, I'm sweaty, I'm nasty, and I'm in a t-shirt that I probably wouldn't mop up a bathroom floor with. We leave the Taj and our driver takes us to a restaurant for lunch. It's nice. Very few tourists. Everyone is dressed well, except for me. I frankly have no business being in that restaurant, but hellllooo there's the waiter, smiling and taking my drink order.
I'm white. It's India. I got a Coke, no problem.
My friend Mehdi has said he'd like to travel together for a long time. I invite him on my next trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. He says "oh man, I'd really love to go, but I'm not sure how safe I'd feel."
"Yeah, My ex girlfriend is from Sofia. She said it might not be safe for me to go to Bulgaria. I could be mistaken for a gypsy and there's a lot of animosity towards them there."
He's Persian. I'm white. It's Bulgaria.
Listen, I can't claim to know everything about race relations in every part of the world, but I do know this: at its worst, my skin color is a neutral trait almost anywhere I go. At best, it probably lets people that look like me get away with a lot more shit than other people.
I interviewed a girl this year who, as an experiment, travelled through South and Central America for 300 days this year with one simple rule: she can't take in or spend money at all. She instead offers to work for locals around the house, cook, do odd jobs, or professionally style locals' hair in exchange for a place to crash and some of the food she'll probably be cooking. I truly give her a lot of credit, she took responsibility and put her money (or lack thereof) where her mouth is, spending a lot of hungry nights sleeping in tents if she couldn't barter for a room. But at least some of the time, she was knocking on restaurants' doors, telling them about her project, and leaving with a plate of food they were about to throw out that evening. Or meeting locals who would take her home and give her a couch or a floor to sleep on. She had a litany of legitimate and, dare I say honorable reasons for doing this: She wanted to challenge people's conceptions of money, learn more about herself, and connect with others who are different from her, which, god knows the world could use a little more of these days. But the one fact that I can't seem to overlook is that a local knocking on a restaurant door asking for food gets shooed away, and yet a pretty white girl from Belgium leaves with a doggie bag.
As the Guardian noted in their article "Why Are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants?", It's clear that this double standard permeates many aspects of not just our own culture, but that it’s pretty much everywhere. It’s true that expat is a term usually reserved for western white people going to work abroad, and yet Latinos, Arabs, Asians, and Africans are colloquially referred to as immigrants, even if they’re working in highly skilled jobs. It's very unlikely that I will ever be referred to as a migrant worker except maybe on the most esoteric governmental forms, and it's equally unlikely that I will experience much difficulty getting a cab, a table, a room, nearly anywhere in the world.
I wish I had the answer here. I wish I could help figure this out, even just in my own little way when I'm out there, but I spend a lot of time in different cultures with only a loose grasp of what's going on there in the first place. I can't really say "oh I shouldn't go to this restaurant, I feel underdressed and besides there's a FAAABULOUS place around the corner, and the chef is just a GEM!". I was just happy our driver took us to a place with food. Or I can't say to the officers in Hong Kong "Excuse me gentlemen. This is clearly a misunderstanding. Pursuant to local code 4-2, article 6, you need a search warrant to detain anyone OH WAIT I'M IN JAIL NOW BECAUSE FUCKED WITH HK COPS". Half the time, I'm just lucky to know where I am and where I'm going. How can I hope to change decades or centuries of oppression if I can hardly find the metro station?
I know there's a heated and necessary debate here in the US about white privilege. This post isn't about that, plain and simple. But I do think that privilege is borne out of people being accustomed to a certain type of treatment, and changing that treatment causes a negative reaction. When I travel, I've never grown accustomed to being treated in any particular way in the first place, which helps me see things for what they are. And my unfortunate conclusion is that, in many places, light colored skin and European ancestry is placed on a pedestal. If you need me, I’ll be over here, feigning shock.
Travel hasn’t made me happy. None of it has maaaade me happy. It’s nice to get out of my comfort zone and I feel a sense of fulfillment from all that I’ve done this year, but the happiness I currently have (and I am fairly happy) is something I still need to work on all the time. The saying is true, “wherever you go, there you are.” It might be easy to think of me as this intrepid world adventurer traveling to 16 countries last year, almost like a younger Dos Equis guy or Indiana Jones without all the Nazis, but really I’m just a dude that spent $3500 on flights and had a job flexible enough they haven’t fired me yet. There’s nothing actually heroic about taking a $300 flight to Reykjavik with my friends and renting a car, exploring waterfalls and hopping from hot springs to hot tubs. It’s just a nice thing that I’m glad I did, that’s all. Which, as I grow older, I’m realizing is kinda the point of it all. To do a lot of the things we like doing as often as we can and enjoy them while we do it. Which brings me to my next point:
Travel is bullshit. There’s a whole industry built around making you feel like a sack of dogturds if you don’t travel. “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us” reads the instagram post of the hot girl in the jungle, wearing a striking red dress that perfectly compliments the waterfall behind her. She has 187K insta followers. “To Travel is to Live”, says the tattoo of the bro from So Cal that just got “sooooo drunk dude” at that Full Moon party last night. He is the one that will complain check-out is at 10:30 and that is just too early, and he will probably have sex with another girl, who also happens to be from So Cal, tonight in the bunk above you. Squeak squeak squeak. But he’ll be the first one to tell you about how he “found himself in Thailand.” Neat.
And the main reason I have an issue with this is that these people are winning the “Look At How Great My Life Is” award right now, but I question their process. See, I met with a friend for coffee recently, and he is a playwright. But, he’s never left the country before, and he feels he is less-than because of it. He feels he is doing his art and audiences a disservice by only staying in one area of the world for his life. And you know how the old saying goes: “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read but a page”, another quote someone thought would make a great tattoo but decided it was too long.
Now, I can talk all day about the benefits of travel and how it has truly bettered my life, but that’s not what this is about. What my friend needs to understand is that a lot of travel is bullshit. Especially from the people making him feel like crap for not doing it. But he doesn’t have much of a desire to travel. He says it’s a combination of the money and the fact it doesn’t really interest him. To that, I say: 1) don’t travel if you don’t want to and 2) don’t feel bad about it. All we are talking about here is the pursuit of personal growth, and travel can be a great catalyst for that. But so can about 100,000 other things: Learning a new craft, writing more, training for a marathon, meditating, working on being vulnerable in your relationships… I don’t need to give you a list of all the uncomfortable things we can do to improve ourselves, but all I’m saying is don’t feel like you need travel for any reason. History was written by many people that never went 100 miles from their home. It’s just a shame there’s about 1,000,000 Instagram accounts for travel and none about being vulnerable. So write your next wonderful play, friend. Dive as deep as you can into the human experience and share with the world what you’ve found. But don’t for a second feel bad about not getting out there. A lot of well travelled people aren’t half as impressive as you are. Remember that.