The difference between traveling and living in other countries

One of the things I was once criticized over when applying to work as a travel agent was that I wasn’t well-traveled. I found that a bit odd someone would say that, considering my background as a Third Culture Kid and living in several different countries. Thinking about it for a while, I realized that there are indeed differences in my experience living overseas and traveling.

For one, I find myself more familiar with certain countries and places; it would always be Hong Kong in the summer or winter, Manila throughout most of the year, and the occasional visit to the United States in the summer growing up. Later on, it reversed, and Manila would be where I went in the winter and an excursion back to Hong Kong or some other place my father would take us to. It was a routine jump from one locale to the other.

For my friend Mike, he is an American through and through, but in many respects, he’s more well-traveled than I am. Throughout the year, he constantly makes little trips to Mongolia, Saipan, Venezuela, and any other countries he randomly picks as his new destinations. He knows all the deals and discounts for flights and hotels, even in Manila and Hong Kong, and his passport is stamped with a wide variety of countries, with extra pages added constantly.

My passport, on the other hand, has stamps from only the United States, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, China, and Hong Kong. I know the airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Manila airports like they were a routine stop every week (which was true for a while). I haven’t added any pages, and I only know discounts for going to a few places, but beyond that, I don’t feel like I’m well-traveled in comparison to Mike.

One of the big differences I feel from living overseas is that I get to truly take in more than just checking out wikitravel or planning an itinerary based on what Lonely Planet suggests in its guidebooks. Mike and crew get to go through Corregidor island, dive in El Nido, drink in Malate, and party in Boracay in the course of a few weeks; I got to experience some of those places on a regular basis, and others I never had a chance to during my entire time in the Philippines.

When traveling the way he does, it’s a snapshot, a slice of life. It’s another world, another place, and it’s confined to memories, pictures, and stories over coffee or beer exchanged between friends. It’s an adventure, and it’s full of excitement, and a point of envy I have for him.

When living overseas the way I have like my fellow Third Culture Kids, it’s life on Mars. Instead of just seeing people around us as being weird for “not being normal like they are in America,” we see them as other people. That whole “when you’re in America, act American; when you’re in China, act like you’re Chinese” approach is something utterly abhorrent to me. The alienation, the borrowed behaviors, beliefs, and identities are like the snake shedding its skin, as opposed to the frog hopping from lily to lily, being the sojourner and traveler respectively.

I feel like I get to know a place, its people, and its ways much better by being stuck there for a period of time, since I don’t have the mentality that I’m only there for a short time, I’m going to cram as much as I can in and go back to recover from taking it all in. It’s like going to a buffet: grabbing as much food as possible, taking it in all at once, and feeling bloated, then barely remembering the taste of everything. Granted, that’s vacation travel specifically, since not all travel is like that. Living somewhere for a while, it’s like sampling a bottle of wine every day and getting to know every detail about it that makes it special.

Ultimately, I feel like when I talk about the Philippines and other places I’ve lived in, I have an interesting take on it. Like when someone passing through on vacation or on business talks about it, and when locals talk about it, I feel that I can talk to both groups as an in-between, sharing the appreciation of locals, living with instead of amongst them, instead of sticking with a foreign clique and hangouts of the foreigners who go to meet other foreigners–even if I do hang out with the foreigners too. At the same time, I am able to critique the place and culture without defaulting to the perspective one country or group’s like the foreigners do.

If and when I do compare cultures, places, and people, it’s not from a brief snapshot of time that comes from travel, it’s from a long period of absorbing lots of detail and reflecting on it to develop the insights rather than going based off of brief impressions. Does it give me more insight than someone like Mike who travels more frequently? No, not really, it just gives me a different and distinct perspective. End result: I still want to travel to a lot of countries, but I want to live in only a few of them.

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2 responses to “The difference between traveling and living in other countries

  1. I can relate your story to my own. I go for a job interview. Employers want – or at least claim they want – someone who is good English speaker and familiar with American culture. But really they want someone who is very Korean…which used to confuse me a lot.

  2. I have decided that I am a bad tourist. I don’t like visiting places. I like visiting people who live in different places. I would rather spend two weeks in Phnom Penh with a close friend, who lives in a Khmer area, and live her life rather than visit the tourist attractions. In fact, I’ve now been to Cambodia three times and have never visited Angkor Wat…!

    I don’t ever read travel guides before visiting a place. I talk to a friend who lives there (or has spent significant time there) – I’m usually going to visit someone anyway. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I know how to be a tourist! 😀

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