When you plan a trip to a new place, be it a long or short visit, it is natural to devote most of your attention to the physical things you must take with you: a passport, a smartphone, a visa perhaps, personal documents, prescriptions, glasses, appropriate clothing, sturdy shoes, to name a few. There are numerous checklists online to help you remember to bring the essentials. But what’s often forgotten or belittled is how you can mentally prepare for the changes and (difficult) challenges ahead.
What they leave out of most tourist brochures and travel magazines is that you may feel confused, stupid, lonely and scared many times during your trip. These are common feelings stemming from culture shock, but they are especially strong when you arrive unprepared or have a strong predetermined notion of how the place should be. What many travel books also leave out is how badly you may be treated because you are a foreigner or a tourist. Being shunned and ignored doesn’t seem appealing, but it will turn out to be the better problem to have compared with getting too much attention: this usually takes the form of harsh stares, demeaning treatment, inflated prices, harassment and bullying. It doesn’t matter where you go, or what you look like, you can experience this. Even in touristy areas, which, in my view, have the most abrasive attitude towards visitors.
Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to dissuade anyone from traveling or moving. Leaving your comfort zone, experiencing the new and unfamiliar, learning and growing, making new friends—this is all extremely valuable and makes travel truly worthwhile. I like to believe that people become more compassionate when they travel longer or more often. Unfortunately, you will find more people complaining about the negative effect of foreigners than discussing the pain of being a foreigner, let alone trying to find ways to cope with that pain. There are people who have had such traumatic experiences as foreigners that they develop prejudices of their own or become disillusioned with travel altogether, becoming less open and more isolated. This is a sad outcome that most people definitely don’t expect when they first plan their trip or set out, but I believe it can be avoided if you are prepared, or healed if you know how to cope.
Before I begin, I must admit that I am not a psychologist and I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Some people may have overwhelmingly positive experiences, while others may have incredibly horrible ones, my advice is to be taken in context, as a suggestion, not a rule. What I see is a growing problem that badly needs to be addressed, now more than ever, as identity becomes more and more of a politicized issue. In the tragic arenas of nationalism vs. globalism, it is often forgotten that there are very real people—struggling people, people in pain—behind the group designations and slurs, especially when only one group gets to determine the identity and value of the others. I believe now more than ever, it is important to share my experiences and not let others speak on my behalf, which they have too often and for too long, because I am familiar with culture shock, prejudice and the mental landscape of being a foreigner. (I have written a bit more about myself here: The Semi-Professional Immigrant.)
So, let us begin. Imagine packing your bag for an exciting trip—the trip of a lifetime. You could bring a large piece of luggage or a handy backpack. You need to avoid becoming overburdened, so you must take only the essentials. What would you take with you? You look into your bag. Inside you can see your current passport, a toothbrush, socks, some clothes folded neatly in-place. What else? What would you need to mentally prepare and cope with the stresses you might encounter when traveling or living as a foreigner? Hmmm. Here are my suggestions in no particular order:
Basic Communication Skills
Much of this will seem like common sense, especially for those who travel often, but you would be surprised how many people forget their basic communication skills and body language when they become overwhelmed by new surroundings. If the people in the place you are visiting speak a different language, please do try to learn at least a few basic words in that language, especially “please” and “thank you” and numbers 1-10. I know this can be daunting if the sounds are very foreign, but making an effort to say “hello”, “thank you” or “goodbye” counts as much as saying it perfectly. Just because you speak a popular language, like English, does not mean that everyone else does, especially if you go to a less touristy area.
Having pre-written cards or notes in your smart phone written in that language is also a great idea and will reduce stressful situations in taxi cabs. Some useful written information in that language would be the address of your place of stay and the address of restaurants or attractions you want to visit. Information cards are also extremely helpful if you have any allergies, dietary restrictions (Jodi Ettenberg offers some great celiac cards here), or in case you need certain over-the-counter medications, as I learned the hard way when I tried to figure out what “Tylenol” was in Germany (they don’t have that brand, but the equivalent is called “Paracetamol” if you’re wondering). Of course, if you have a reliable internet connection you can also look up everything as you go, but it may take up valuable vacation time and you may already encounter your first problem getting out of the airport, as I did in once Beijing when I could only give my bewildered cab driver my hotel address in English.
And lastly, when all else fails, make use of universal body language: give a clear smile and nod for yes, shake your head and keep your mouth closed for no. Clearly point to the things you want, draw or write them on a piece of paper (this works for numbers very well, for example: 100 grams, 200 grams). Use simple words and gestures, but do so humbly, not condescendingly.
Resist the urge to smile at everyone or engage everyone in eye-contact, this is especially important for Americans because we are very smiley (anyone work in retail before?). Eye-contact is often interpreted as an invitation and you will often get unsolicited attention and aggressive people may approach you. If someone aggressive does approach you, do not touch or hold on to anything they may offer you, try to keep moving and don’t engage in conversation. When you do want to communicate with someone, you should smile and make some eye-contact, but never stare and always remain courteous. Try to keep your body relaxed, especially your face, remember to breathe when you are in a stressful situation. I know it seems like common sense, but it is easy to forget under stress. Most of communication is body language, so if you send mixed messages, the likelihood for misunderstanding will be greater whether you speak the language or not.
Street Smarts: The World is not a Theme Park
It always amazes me how many times I see tourists, especially in those in large groups, throw common sense out of the window. They walk slowly, like a herd of cattle, completely blocking sidewalks, narrow alleyways and passages. They gawk at residents as if they are observing zoo animals. They take endless pictures of landmarks, seemingly unaware that people may be trying to pass, or are actually living or working inside of those buildings, people trying to go about their daily lives.
I think we’ve come far enough to realize what is new and strange to us is someone else’s ordinary, that the exotic places we are visiting are other people’s homes. Just like in your own home, you would not like someone to deface it, or disrespect you, or make so much noise at night that you can’t sleep. It’s no surprise that heavily-visited areas have active campaigns against tourists or the people who live there have developed a strong hostility towards foreigners. If you were a resident trying to get to and from work or appointments, you would be extremely frustrated if you couldn’t get past slow-moving crowds, or are constantly hounded by people asking for directions, or asking you to take their pictures (though the selfie-stick has eased this problem considerably).
I do not condone hateful or disrespectful behavior from anyone, but this explains some of the animosity towards tourists. Protect yourself, the beauty of the place you are visiting and uphold the peace by being street smart. If you want to stop to look at a map, a landmark, or take a picture, stand off to the side of the walkway or road, make sure you are not blocking anyone’s way and be aware of cars and bicycle lanes. When walking, do not stop suddenly or change direction abruptly, always take a quick glance behind you before you stop or turn, otherwise you can easily get hit by a bicyclist or a person attempting to pass you, this is especially important if you are in big cities or crowded places.
If you are lost or clueless, try not to look it. I know this is easier said than done, but try to keep your eyes level and your jaw set. It’s okay to be scared, just don’t look scared. There are people who prey on vulnerable tourists, especially those who let their guard down when they are among other tourists. Try to find a safe space, like a café, where you can sit down and get your bearings. Do not stop with your phone or a map in the middle of a sidewalk and ask anyone who comes along for help. It’s best to plan your route before you start walking, after you have finished a meal, for example, figure out where you need to go and how to get there, then set out. If you have to ask someone, try to keep your questions very simple, in a form that can be answered in one word or gesture, not “How do to I get to Trafalgar Square?” rather “Which direction is Trafalgar Square?”
Self-Awareness: Become Aware of Your Stress Triggers and Behavior
Imagine this scenario: You board a bus at a station, as you enter, the bus driver says something you don’t quite understand, he repeats himself, you shake your head, he becomes more agitated, instead of calming down he just keeps repeating the same words over and over, louder and louder, expecting the tone and repetition will do the trick and you will magically understand. His yelling makes other people stop and stare at you as if you are the problem. You feel helpless. At the end, he shakes his head angrily, dismisses you as an idiot and maybe even calls you a nasty name. This is a common scenario when people have a language barrier and/or a prejudice. What should you do?
First of all, get used to it. I am sorry to say it can happen often. Welcome to being a foreigner. Imagine this happening to you randomly, in the check-out line, while sitting in a train, while walking on a beach, or visiting a pool. It doesn’t feel good, right?
As much as I would like to school haters that not speaking their language or looking different does not equal stupid or less worthy of respect, I can’t change the way other people think or act. People can be a**holes, some more than others. Though I would not go so far as to label everyone bad, there is a spectrum of bad choices and many people fall into the area of being selfish opportunists. They usually go with the flow until they encounter a slight problem, a slight hiccup from their expectations, then they get stressed because why shouldn’t things happen exactly as they envision them or stay the way they are used to? They are actually very insecure and afraid, so they do what’s easiest (but also the most cowardly)—they blame another person for their stress, especially if the person looks different and may not be able to defend themselves. It’s an unfortunate part of human nature, noticing the weaknesses in people and trying to take advantage of them.
The best thing you can do is to not become one of these people and not let them get to you. Recognize your stress symptoms and behaviors. When you feel yourself getting stressed, take a deep breath and tell yourself it’s okay. Language or cultural barriers do not have to be anybody’s fault or deficiency. Perhaps it seems unmanageable, especially as that bus driver begins to yell at you, you start to feel ashamed, the blood rushes to your face, you start to examine yourself. What did you do wrong? What’s wrong with you? What did you do to deserve this? Your gaze turns inward, but that’s exactly what the other person wants you to do so they can feel better about themselves, they want to feel in-control, maybe even superior.
Here you must stop, take a deep breath if you can. Do not feel ashamed, see their fear for what it is. Turn your gaze outward instead of inward, scrutinize that person instead of yourself. Look for distinguishable features: a name or id tag, a company logo, a receipt or brochure, especially if they are a salesperson or driver, pay attention to the time, look around for another person to help you or who can better explain the problem. Often, as I calm myself down and turn my gaze outward, the angry person inadvertently begins to mirror me. It is hard to yell at someone who is serene. It is also easier to find the solution to the problem when you are calm, oftentimes it is as simple as noticing the bus driver wants to go on a break, or the hand cart must be put back on the rack before you can purchase your items.
Self-Acceptance: Don’t be too hard on yourself
Sometimes, no matter how prepared or polite you are, people will still behave badly. You don’t have to teach anyone a lesson and often, the stress that comes from hating is punishment enough. It’s astounding how stressed some people can get over the smallest issue, I once encountered a receptionist who threw a red-faced tantrum because I was too polite! “You don’t need to ask!!!” she screamed! You can rest easy knowing you gave a sh**ty person a sh**ty day.
But if a person was especially cruel to you and you just can’t let it go, don’t hesitate to complain to their manager directly (if you can), or if they work for a particular company, to write a complaint about them. This can easily be done online and many companies have websites in several languages. This is where it becomes critical that you note their name, appearance, time and location of the incident. If they are a salesperson or work in a restaurant, you can also write a review about them online. However, I would only do this as a last resort, you must weigh the gravity of the incident with the time and emotional cost to you and anyone involved. And it goes without saying, if the incident involves physical violence or threats of violence, the authorities must be contacted immediately. In these modern times, with social media, online forums and blogs, the individual is more powerful than ever before. It is, in fact, a persistent illusion that any person, no matter how foreign, cannot fight back or is truly powerless. It is amazing how many people (or companies like United Airlines) have not accepted this new reality.
Another persistent illusion is control. There are going to be many things on your journey that are completely out of your control, not just how other people behave. Tours can get cancelled due to mechanical failure or bad weather, the weather might be terrible most of the time, reservations could get misplaced, dates could be written wrong, you might make mistakes, drivers can get lost, etc. I don’t mean to be a downer, but these things can and do happen.
And even when everything goes perfectly as planned, your health or emotions might not. You may feel overwhelmed, tired, lonely or anxious. When this happens, it is important to stop, accept your emotions and give yourself the time and space you need to reflect and reassess your plans. You may need to cancel some visits, or change your itinerary to visit a more peaceful place, or join a tour group (if you feel lonely), or slow the pace of your travel, or even stay in bed longer. That’s okay, it’s not a competition on sightseeing or who can get the most for their money. Travel is an opportunity to learn, not only about the world, but about yourself — your boundaries, your motivations and your passions.
Flexibility: Keep Learning and Stay Open
This is where flexibility becomes key, you need to allow for some flexibility in your expectations, as well as in your itinerary. If something unplanned happens, especially if you are feeling different than expected, being flexible will help you a great deal. Obviously, if you knew everything about a place and could plan for everything, there would be no point in going there or anywhere else for that matter! The unknown is not necessarily negative, it is the main thrill of travel!
While on vacation in Alaska many years ago, I noticed a group of three travelers who encountered so much misfortune on their trip. Their ocean cruise to see the whales and glaciers was suddenly cancelled due to mechanical failure. Also, the weather was too stormy for their planned trek on the mountain trails, so that was cancelled as well. But the worst part of it was how one of them reacted. It was clear that she had her heart set on experiencing those particular tours and when they didn’t happen, she couldn’t deal with it, so she promptly lost it. She laid herself down, flat on the seat of the bus we were in and threw a full-blown adult tantrum. The other travelers with her, also adults, were left standing there in a panic, trying to calm her. As the days passed, I would often bump into them since we stayed in the same resort. And since the woman made quite the impression on me, I couldn’t help but check in on her. Unfortunately, she stayed in a terrible mood for the duration of their stay.
This may be an extreme case, but it can happen to anyone. What surprised me then as it still does now, is why the woman could not be more flexible? Why couldn’t she see that her obstinate thinking and behavior was also a problem? In fact, it turned out to be the biggest problem they had on that trip. I could relate to them, I was on the same trip. I knew that it had cost a lot of money and the disappointment was great, but her anger was costing them so much more. There were many other things to do and see there: kayaking or canoeing, fishing, visiting the museums and villages, to name a few. It was in those unexpected places, those unplanned moments that I learned so much, they became the most meaningful cherished memories.
If there is one word to sum up all of this mental preparation in a nutshell, it would be compassion. If you focus on developing compassion for others and compassion for yourself, you will have a much easier time adapting to new situations, enjoying yourself and making new friends. Compassion can give us the perspective to prioritize our desires with what is really important: Dwelling on that tour that didn’t go as planned. vs. Not wasting your time delving on what didn’t happen./ Seeing all the sights in your itinerary. vs. Actually having a good time and feeling good about yourself./ Getting that latte machiatto exactly as you envision it. vs. Treating your clumsy waiter with kindness.
It is during moments of stress, isolation and pain that we can grow the most as human beings. We can develop empathy for others who experience this kind of pain in the places we call home. We can become more knowledgeable about other cultures and perspectives different from our own if we reserve our judgment and keep our minds and hearts open. We can travel only as far as we allow ourselves.
A Sense of Humor
Being a foreigner is actually more absurd than sad. You will never take simple tasks for granted ever again! Tasks such as food shopping, ordering food, using the toilet, making conversation, these can all become absurdly complicated! It’s ridiculous! I notice the people, like my husband, who thrive the most when traveling, approach challenges like these with a sense of fun and humor. Whereas others would try to avoid them at all costs, he always goes about it happily, enjoying the excitement of the new and unfamiliar.
And lastly, remember what I said about many people “falling into the area of being selfish opportunists”? Well, I have to make a confession: I include myself as well. You see, I look like a tourist where I live. In fact, I look like a tourist pretty much anywhere in the world I go because I am a multicultural, multiracial person. So if you are a tourist who doesn’t mentally prepare and makes a lot of no-no’s, I will get blamed for it. That’s right, you can go back home and I’m left being the poster child for any tourist-hating, foreigner-hating fools! So make my life easier by being a kind, compassionate traveler. Thank you.
In all seriousness, for your own sake, please mentally prepare yourself for the exciting days ahead. Brush up on your communication skills, become aware of your stress levels and how to manage them, be kind to yourself, be street smart, be more flexible and more compassionate, and don’t forget to bring a sense of humor! Packing these things into your luggage will lighten all your burdens.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker. © M.P. Baecker and http://www.alightcircle.com 2017.