Sometimes people ask me why I travel so much — or used to travel so much. Certainly, on a beautiful hopeful spring day like today, with my magnolia advertising its splendor to come, I wonder myself. Then I remember that time at JFK airport:
The Customs agent looked at our form, then at us, then at our two trolleys piled high with luggage, and back up at us.
“How long have you been gone?” he asked.
Uh-oh. This wasn’t going to be one of those routine passages. We were a little nervous about the plentiful cheese in one of our bags. We knew it was legal to bring it in – even declared it on our Customs form – but we didn’t know if this agent knew, too.
“Five months.” I didn’t say “sir” but I would have if I’d thought it would help.
“Did you have a good time?”
A surprising question. And was he smiling? “It was great.”
He grinned. “Welcome home.”
I knew my delight was disproportionate to those two little words – the “home” as important as the “welcome.” This man was a stranger, and all I knew about him was that he was American, so we were connected not just by the dirt we stood on but by the culture from which we were formed. We’d both know a certain amount about our history, would laugh at the same culturally-referenced jokes, understand how Texans are different from Vermonters. We’d eat hot dogs, maple syrup, and coffee in containers.
I didn’t know if I’d actually like him if I got to know him. No matter. The U.S. – in the face of this Customs official – was hugging me.
I love traveling, seeing new things, learning about other cultures and other languages, other ways of seeing the way things can be. And I love coming home. In fact, home is better because I travel. Otherwise, it would just be “normal,” invisible.
I know how to do things at home. I can joke around with servers in restaurants or complain to the customer service rep at the cable TV company. I know when I’m entitled to ask for a refund or exchange, and I know how much leeway to take with the “5 garments allowed in the fitting room.”
If I didn’t spend time overseas, I’d never be aware that one could either know or not know these simple things. They’d be more like breathing. Who knew that it’s culturally specific to smile at a stranger on the street when you make eye contact, and that if you do it in France, you’re considered crazy? When you have the experience of not knowing how to do everyday things – how to get sheets that fit your bed, then return them because you erred – it can seem like a very big part of your exciting but sometimes difficult life.
I never feel much like an American, whatever that means, when I’m in the U.S. But I’m very American when I’m in another country. It strikes me that I feel like a New Yorker mostly when I’m with people who are not from New York. I feel Jewish when there are no other Jews around. And I suppose, if I were with people from another planet, then I’d feel like an Earthling.
So when I travel I’m not just learning about other cultures. And I’m not just learning about my own, by seeing the differences in other places. I’m learning how much of me is rooted in my culture.
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