thoughts on how to travel well

From Slavoj Zizek's Plague of Fantasies:

"The original question of desire is not directly 'What do I want?', but 'What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?' A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around him."

From Anthony Storr's Solitude: A Return to the Self:

"Many of the patients whom [a famous psychiatrist] treated had, for one reason or another, learned as children to be over-compliant; that is, to live in ways which were expected of them, or which pleased others, or which were designed not to offend others. [...] This is what Winnicott deemed a 'false self' -- that is, a self which is based upon compliance with the wishes of others, rather than being based upon the individual's own true feelings and instinctive needs. Such an individual ultimately comes to feel that life is pointless and futile, because he is merely adapting to the world rather than experiencing it as a place in which his subjective needs can find fulfillment."

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I flew off to Aix-en-Provence for a 10-week study abroad program. For the first time in my very sheltered life, almost every pillar of protection had been knocked over. 

All the self-defense mechanisms I had carefully cultivated over the years wouldn't work here:

  • The program consisted of 2 boys and 40 girls; I had attended an all-boys prep school for ten years.
  • The local culture was very expressive and open (a lot of kisses, touches, and proximity); I had a pretty conservative upbringing in a stoic Pakistani Muslim household. 
  • People in Aix didn't speak much English; my French was "academic" -- great for probing analyses on Voltaire, but little practical value.

As a result, during my first week in Aix, I subsisted off of a Nutella-and-bread diet, holed up in my room watching Amelie in darkness. I exercised the only semblance of control I could find -- stick my head in the ground.

Eventually, I realized what was going on with me. Many of my unconscious habits of disengaging with uncomfortable situations had now become not only alarmingly conscious, but also ineffective. I feared going out to the market to grab groceries or start a conversation with a stranger because I feared how my errors in French or other quirkiness would negatively impact how others viewed me. Even if they couldn't care less.

The Fear of Social Rejection

This is a pretty common setup for the College Kid Abroad narrative. The "immersion" aspect throws him (or her) for a loop; he leans into the awkwardness; lingual and personal transformation ensues. He returns with a Mediterranean tan, a chiller, slightly arrogant demeanor, and new clothes/music. Or maybe he doesn't lean in and has a miserable time.

Why does this happen? We can look at some psych literature for some clues. In his excellent book Others in Mind, Philippe Rochat asserts that self-consciousness is a modern syndrome in which the "self is an object to itself co-constructed in interaction with others."

"As a species, we are caught in a unique and fateful reflective loop. We have the privilege as well as the curse of being able to reflect upon ourselves, as an object unto itself, but also through the eyes of others."

In other terms, I create an idea of "Ammar" largely in relation to other people's recognition of me. When we sit with friends and talk about random things, on one level, yes, we're engaging in friendly banter and love. But we're also exploring and experimenting with our sense of self by mutually recognizing each other and actively being aware of the existence of each other. We are simultaneously constructing others and being constructed by others.

Rochat writes that a side effect of this "co-constructive" feature of being human is a hard-wired fear of social rejection. When social encounters make someone anxious, it may be because he fears that others will see him unworthy of recognition. This is a case of believing that others are actively constructing and de-constructing the person, as opposed to all of this being a shared, cooperative activity. 

Some of this is genetic, but much of it is environmental -- if you've been raised to view your sense of self coming from certain accomplishments (and that most of your human interaction with others revolves around discussion of said accomplishments), then of course there will be anxiety about not being "good enough" for others. If you feel your self driven by other people's expectations of you, then at some level you fear their rejection (and thus lack of recognition) of you.

This process of co-construction could also be why we: act differently around different people; enjoy being regulars at coffeeshops or delis or bars or restaurants; feel comfortable in small groups but lose footing in crowds; say things like "I'm so glad I met someone who's as weird as I am"; join cults.

Getting Out of the "Comfort Zone"

Over time, the way we deal with this constant co-construction becomes habituated and subconscious. My relationship to myself and to others stabilizes, so then I get a person named Ammar who generally is x and does y and thinks z.

Going abroad shatters this habituated self and brings all of this to the conscious surface. There are no comfortable nooks you can reliably crawl back to, no previously saved versions of You that other people agree upon. Every encounter is a potential source of social rejection -- if not because of your quirkiness, then definitely because of your broken French. 

Being abroad (or generally speaking, being thrown way out of your comfort zone), you have to consciously re-address your relationship with this co-construction. Will you play an active role in exploring the different ways you can experience yourself and experience others? Or will you passively accept the easiest version of yourself that others expect you to be?

How to Travel Well

A large part of traveling is really a way for your "self" to travel, to be thrown out of the context of the self it has been habituated to be.

Traveling well is to harshly reacquaint yourself with the fact that you are a constructed You (and that you have the power to construct that person however you wish).

Traveling well is also realizing that how you treat other people (or even things and places) is also constructing them. There is a responsibility in not only compassionately constructing yourself, but also compassionately constructing the people around you.

In this sense, traveling well doesn't necessarily require a passport or a sexy Airbnb apartment rented out in Havana. You can travel well by more actively participating in co-construction: brunch with friends, conversations with Uber drivers, hikes, long walks. Though that Cuba trip does sound pretty awesome.