I’m a firm believer in travel as a lifestyle choice. But it certainly isn’t going to make you happier. In fact, for many people travel becomes escapism. If you think that travel is the antidote to a bad breakup or to find meaning in your life, you’re probably wrong. In my experience, you can’t travel to find yourself any more than you can buy happiness. It just doesn’t work.
What idealists don’t seem to understand is that traveling is an isolating experience. It’s challenging and rewarding, but at its core you are cutting yourself off from your own culture. Once you have done that, you can only begin to connect with the culture you’ve immersed yourself in. But even then it will only be superficial. You’ll never understand the politics and cultural nuances of another culture like you do your own. The best you can do is a get a sense of how another part of the world operates, and then consider those cultures within your own experience.
It’s one thing to go to vacation on a tropical island. There you’re just being served. But to travel long-term is to accept that you are going to be judged for travelling — often by the people you least expect it from. You can’t even talk about those experiences once you begin the process of moving back home after living abroad. It just comes off as bragging about travel, and nobody is interested in that. Even if you do want to talk about your travels, country collecting usually only matters in the expat community. And even then, it’s only in a way that is performative happiness — it’s impossible to just have positive and enlightening experiences while traveling. And the longer you travel, the more you recognize that.
But while you can’t travel to find yourself, you can travel to get a better sense of the world. To realize the world is both bigger and smaller than you imagine. It opens your mind up to a lot of different ideas of how the world can work and what the world can be. In other words, Donald Trump may seem shitty, but he’s no Rodrigo Duterte. But beyond political differences are the culture ones. What you can get from traveling is understanding and embracing that all cultures just do it differently than your own. Almost every culture has a more robust history than the United States — and it’s fascinating to see how that plays out.
When living in Seoul last month, it played out in the ultra-nationalism in context of the ongoing conflict with North Korea. In Southeast Asia, it plays out like a performative dance of smiles and courtesies. But this is exactly why you can’t travel to find yourself. There really is no meaning to it — at least not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t make you more enlightened or interesting to travel. In fact, oftentimes it makes you less so. But your conception of the world changes. If you’ve seen the the Pyramids of Giza, they could theoretically be around the corner. They’re clear in your mind, and are a real thing you experienced.
The more you travel, the less the world becomes abstract. It’s a tangible place — each region having different cultures and sensibilities. And while I’ll always maintain that you can’t travel to find yourself, I do think that you can find yourself in the cultural conceptions you gain from travel. Just not in the way you think. I love to travel, but I don’t think it makes your life better. Only you can make your life better — and if travel can aid that, then it’s a worthwhile experience.