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dispatches from the Middle East - traveling's a privilege for the privileged

So, yesterday I wrote a post about how traveling is awesome and you get to be less basic because of it. It still holds true, but here’s some other sides to that point. 

Traveling is a privilege. You have to have money and some kind of stability in your life to handle the instability that is traveling. Either you need a stable income, or you need a financially stable support system behind you (a family, or something else akin to it). Not everyone has that. I recently read on Matador Network, a network for travel writers, a post by Matt Hershberger titled “5 things we need more of in today’s travel writing” and it’s really good. Hershberger, himself coming from a privileged position, said there needs to be more diverse voices within the community. You should read the article in its entirety because he has good points, but here I quote:

Travel writing can have a certain element of privilege to it. How many times have you read a piece about a rich white kid “finding” themselves on a trip abroad? I’ve been that rich white kid, and I’m not saying there’s no place for that type of travel writing. But the fact is, it isn’t only rich white kids who travel — virtually everyone does, and for a host of reasons. Those voices need to be heard more as well.

I wholeheartedly agree. This next point I’m going make is especially relevant if you choose to share your travel experiences publicly, as I am doing with this blog, or Hershberger is doing with his work. As I mentioned in my post linked above, traveling makes you question what you previously know about the world, but if your prior point of view is identifiable mostly to the privileged majority (i.e., white, economically stable, able-bodied, straight, cis, male), your experience is going to be especially relevant to that demographic only. And of course I’m not saying that that perspective is wrong, invaluable, invalid, or lacking an audience. What I’m saying is that other voices needs to be heard as well, because they’re also relevant, valid, and has an audience.

We’re all complex human beings, and we have different facets of identity that intersects one another. The privileged perspective, when put in the traveler’s shoes, will rethink their lives in a way that’s parallel to other privileged perspectives (note: not the same perspective, but perspectives that have parallels to one another. Yep, semantics).

Case in point: a white, cis, able-bodied guy who has been living in Oregon all his life goes to a refugee camp in Lebanon, and another guy of similar positionality comes from Idaho and goes to eastern Uganda to learn to speak Lugisu. Both of them got their minds blown because they’ve never left home before, and they both come back presumably more socially aware than before. Now, another white guy who has a physical disability goes to the same place in Uganda, or a New York-born Nicaraguan trans* woman travels to Serbia. Think of what their experience might be. The way they process and experience things, and the way they get their minds blown is gonna be different from each other, and from the first two guys.

The thing is, our culture has ingrained in us the idea that the privileged perspective (white, cis, upper-middle class, able-bodied, straight, male) is the “default” perspective, so that means that their experience is going to be applicable to absolutely everyone. But not everyone is of that demographic, so not everyone is going to identify with the experiences of that demographic, and that’s ok, because even within that demographic they have different experiences. That fact is not one individual’s fault, but it’s a whole culture’s transgression (well if you use it to oppress others, then it’s your fault). And of course, this phenomenon is not exclusive to travel writing, but it applies to representations in the media, government, art, culture, and all that — but that’s a whole different essay lol. In my previous post, I said that the world is big enough for people to not agree with each other and be different. And guess what’s? The Internet, the TV screen, Hollywood, and the media is big enough and is a rich enough industry to accommodate different voices, so why not accommodate different voices? I still haven’t found a good answer to that question because hint: there is no good answer. We should accommodate diverse voices period.

Now, back to traveling — here’s my other point. Sometimes other people’s marginalization may make it more challenging for them to travel. For example, if someone has a physical disability, it may be difficult for them to travel to a place where accessible infrastructure is lacking. Or LGBTQIA+ -identifying folks may avoid countries that have historically harmed (or is still harming) folks that identify like them. Even though yes, traveling’s gonna enrich them, they have to accommodate their safety and well-being first, because certain places may still extremely marginalize them or even physically harm them. So that point of view has to be taken into account too.

In another case, let’s say A works as a street vendor to feed family of five children, and B has a wife and two kids, and works as an accountant in a corporate firm. They’re gonna have unique experiences even if they go to the same place, and their perspectives are gonna be changed in different ways. But A, as a street vendor, is more likely to find it challenging to just up and leave his job when he’s the primary provider for his family, whereas B can afford to get paid leave. So B, who has more privilege than A to begin with, gets to leave and travel and learn, which is another privilege.

But here’s another thing: Yeah, I said that traveling teaches you a lot about different people and the state of the world, but it isn’t the only way to do that. If you have the privilege of owning books, having access to libraries, the Internet, newspapers, a TV, online news sites, and all that, you can learn too. You don’t have to live in a vacuum, you can think critically about things, and you can learn about people. You should learn about people, and identity, and humanity. Because you know what? (get ready because it’s gonna be one of those cheesy “bam! Here’s your lesson for the day kids!” type moment) Humanity transcends politics, and money, and power, and greediness, and ego. I genuinely think that if people just recognize other people as human beings with rights that should be delivered to them on a silver platter (like most of us experienced), then they wouldn’t think to oppress others or treat others like sub-humans (a la racism, sexism, classism, and all other -isms). I think that traveling is a fast and rough way to help people realize that. It gives you a wake-up call and exposes you right away to differences and similarities between people. It forces you to recognize the humanity in everyone (like when you get lost, and you really need to get somewhere in a foreign country. You may not speak the same language, but people are genuinely eager to help you. That means a lot when you’re desperate).

So, I don’t know, maybe the key to achieving world peace and the utopian equality is to give everyone a paid vacation so that they can see the humanity in everyone? If only things are that easy.


dispatches from the Middle East - on traveling and being less basic

I think I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a nomad. You know, my weird transnational dance that got me pretty depressed in the U.S. is starting to seem small. Not only because here, I’ve had the chance to be more aware of other people’s marginalization and my own privilege, but also because I’ve gotten some distance from my own identity issues. And of course, that’s not to say that I don’t pay attention to my own positionality when I was in the States, but it seems like my situation, my weird split identity between two countries and never-ending homesickness exist in a vacuum. No one knows about it, but it hurts. For some reason, the baggage hurts and it felt heavy. I think the reason it felt so heavy is because I have strong ties to both Indonesia and the United States, and only those two places (at least up till recently). So as long as I stay between the two places, my identity will likely always be fractured between the two. Yet, if I were to keep traveling, keep moving and discovering new facets of my identity, that baggage won’t seem too big in comparison because guess what? The world is also way bigger in comparison.

Now that I’m here, my homesickness is split between Seattle and Jakarta, of course. I miss the lush evergreen sights and endless coffee shops and bookstores. But on the other hand, many facets of Amman reminds me so much of Jakarta, and it also makes me miss it. I can’t argue with the fact that my experience here is undoubtedly influenced by my experience of growing up in Indonesia. The fact that Amman reminds me of Jakarta, the fact that hearing the Adzan (prayer calls) makes me so nostalgic for my childhood, the fact that people recognize my name as Arabic — those are things that probably won’t happen to someone who comes to Jordan from, say Nebraska or Philadelphia or somewhere. Here I’m known as the “American from Indonesia with the Arabic name.” There’s so many stories and questions within that, and being able to explore new facets of my identity, new ways of thinking, and new labels I have to go through, is exciting and fascinating.

As I sat here entertaining the idea of coming back soon after I finish schooling, I wonder what kind of baggage I’ll have then. But it’s surprising how leaving places is starting to feel easier. Maybe it feels easier for now because I’m only here for two and a half months. But still, it feels like leaving will be less heavy, less ties, less hard goodbyes (maybe on my part, but probably only because I’ve gotten used to it by now). The reality is, people move on, people forget, people get over things, and life goes on. You’ll discover the people with whom you’ll actually want to keep in touch with. You’ll discover the people who will do the same with you, even if they’re not traveling to the extent that you are. You’ll feel sad when people forget you. You’ll still have people that you’ll stalk every once in a while because you’re curious with where they are now in life (but of course that’s not exclusive to people who travel, everyone stalks everybody else online). You’ll have people who say “I miss you!!!!” occasionally but then never contact you to catch up. You’ll have people you just don’t care about. I know all this better now. Yeah, homesickness is gonna happen, yeah it’s gonna suck for like two seconds, but no you’re not gonna regret moving. Traveling is really one of those things that add so much to you. Your life can either be a flatline with no travel or a series of hills and valleys of experiences when you travel. And when I say travel, I mean like really getting to know a place. Not just touring (or worse, “voluntouring.” Major no-no), but really getting to know the history, the culture, the people, the make-ups of the society, the political issues, the complexities of the country’s existence. It’s a lot to learn, but it’ll give you a whole new outlook on things, even things back home, where you feel comfortable already.

For better or for worse, traveling detracts your innocence and simplicity in view points, it detracts so much from basic-ass rachetness. Not to say that once you’ve traveled, you suddenly know everything. No you don’t, and you’re not above anyone for having traveled, because that in itself is a privilege (I’ll try to provide a counterpoint to this post tomorrow probably, about how traveling is a privilege). But you’ll no doubt learn new things about the world and yourself. You’ll learn new things only to know that it’s impossible to learn everything, so you try to take as much of it in as you can. When you travel, you know a little bit more about this huge and complex world we live in. You know that people are different but they’re people: they’re stupid, they’re not perfect, they make mistakes, they mean well, they can be ignorant, they learn new things all the time, they’re not a monolith. You’ll learn that the world is absurd and a hell to live in for some people. You’ll learn that some places are more of a hell than others, and that our definition of “hell” can be different and the same. You’ll discover that the world is big enough for people to not agree with each other. You’ll learn more about tolerance and disagreeing respectfully, because every culture is different and it’s rooted in thousands of years of history. You’ll learn that everything is connected to each other, and nothing bad in this world ever happens in a vacuum, because we live in an intersectional system that allows for marginalization and oppression of others. Why? Because we’re people, and we’re not perfect, and we make mistakes (some of them are grand mistakes, but for some of them, it’s not too late to rectify, but it takes a [global] village). Most of all, you’ll learn that you are very, very small, and your troubles and achievements are no more than a speck of dust, and it doesn’t mean anything to anybody else, and that’s okay. Traveling detracts ignorance but adds heaps and heaps of knowledge, experience, baggage, and life skills. I think the baggage part is especially true if what you’re doing is more than just traveling, but also uprooting or leaving your home to make a new one. Traveling or touristing is like a quickie in a bathroom stall with a country. Uprooting is like freaking procreation. You’ll birth a new home, a new sense of home, a new sense of the world, a new you. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s kind of true though. You’ll change, and you can’t go back, for better or for worse. Hopefully, you’ll discover the strength to feel that you don’t want or need to go back. You’ll just move on. And hopefully, you’ll use the things you’ve learned to do some good in this world. Hopefully, you’ll change more than just your Facebook profile picture.


the tirades of a young adult ix - an analysis of airplanes, holidays, and home


At the Tokyo Airport
by Koon Woon

Cold juice, cold Mt. Fuji,
A child alone dining.
Empty plane, empty heart.

Vast auditorium.
Hearing six tourists talk
About America.

Six bites of hot chicken.
Six swallows of cold juice.
Six hours, America.

Child alone, lonely child,
Here, six lotus petals
From Buddha, Mt. Fuji.

Where are your friends, your friends?
Where is your family?
In Buddha’s lotus palm.

Man alone, lonely man,
Where lies your loneliness?
In the mist of the world?

I literally started tearing up when I read this. It brought so much nostalgia, fear, sadness, joy, and just a whole jumble of bittersweet, confusing thoughts and feelings. At the core of everything, this is about homesickness peppered with missing the feelings I get when I’m on and/or near airplanes. Being on airplanes have always meant that I was going to some form of home. My trips back to Jakarta mean that I would visit familiar faces and places, feel some bittersweet nostalgia, and contemplate on where I’ve been and the person I’ve become. On the other hand, my trips back to Seattle mean that I would be home, be able to go to the coffee shops I always go to, see the people I always see, do what I always do, and live my life. Somewhere between that, I would change and grow and learn. Oftentimes I wouldn’t realize what I’ve learned or how much I’ve changed ‘till I actually do go back to Jakarta.

It’s funny how homesickness works for me. During regular days, I usually get homesick because I miss my parents or my cats. During summer breaks when I’m in Indonesia, I would get homesick cause I’d miss my regular reading spots and the coffee shop baristas that know my name. I’d miss the people I usually spend time with, the dance studios I go to, the broken-down couch I usually flop on after a long day of dancing. I feel like for me, and for a lot of people who’ve had similar experiences, it’s a never-ending feeling. It’s like no matter where you are or which home you’re in, there’s always that ever-present threat of homesickness, feeling of missing something, and not ever feeling completely whole. You’re always trying to do this weird dance; you try to weave in identities, experiences, languages, transnational spaces. You’re stuck in this limbo of two cultures (more challengingly, in a society that fears ambivalence or ambiguity). But despite the challenge, you do it anyway, because otherwise you’ll lose a part of yourself.

I usually go back to Jakarta either over the summer or winter break, though I’ve only gone there over winter break once since I moved to Seattle. Still, the homesickness is always multiplied over the break because everyone goes home for the winter holidays. As much as Seattle is home for me, so is Jakarta. That’s where my parents, family, and childhood friends live. Yes, I do have family here (my sister’s here, but I’ve found I have so many more relatives by circumstances than blood relatives in the states. I love them, but I usually never realize that until the winter holidays. Funny how life works, huh?). This time of year, most everyone get to feel what I feel whenever I go back to see my family: a mixture of confusion and awe at how such different characters and personalities can actually be related (for better or for worse) through a combination of miraculous selections of genes and simple fate. Whether you love or hate your family, whether they’re shitty to you or not (I myself have been privileged enough to have a loving family, but it’s important to recognize that some people don’t have that privilege and amazingly, they survive regardless), I don’t think you can’t not be in awe of this fact. Usually I get over it pretty quickly, but sometimes I still do feel envious of people who get to go through those weird moments with and feel those weird feelings about their families.

As silly as this might sound, I do miss airplanes, because being on airplanes means I should expect tears some 10,000 feet above sea level no matter how cheerful I was before that. Looking out of airplanes as the plane took off means I have a few minutes to take in a sight that I could only see once every year (if life permits). Obviously these don’t happen on some airplane trips, but it happens often enough that it becomes the first thing I associate with airplanes. Entering an airport to check-in means you’ve just went through a process of packing and/or unpacking, with maybe some not-so-pleasant life reevaluation thrown in the midst of the process. Being at airports during layovers means that you get to say you’ve been at some foreign country, if only to experience its culture through something resembling more of a bathroom quickie than a night of lovemaking with foreplay and shit. The seemingly countless hours on a large, enclosed cylinder with complete strangers mean you have so much time to reflect and to think (a.k.a. the worst things to do when you have so much thoughts and feelings). Being on airplanes mean you’ll watch really good and really bad airplane movies, and then after the x-number of movie, you get sick of them. You’ll hate airplanes and being on a 10+ hour flight more than anything in your life. It seems no matter how often I go back and forth between Seattle and Jakarta, I will never stop noticing these little things and the flood of bittersweet thoughts that come with them. As level-headed as I am most of the time, I will never stop romanticizing the trips home — whichever home I’m going to. This past summer, I went home for just three weeks. I thought I could do it and not romanticize it. I went home, hung out with my friends and family (plus cats), went and danced at my old studio, visited places I usually visited, and more. It was a nice, relaxed, low-stress trip. I thought I wouldn’t get attached, and, more importantly, I thought I wouldn’t cry. But as the plane took off and the towering buildings turned minuscule, I started bawling like a baby. I thought I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. It was supposed to be like a one-night stand, not saying goodbye to a lover only to be in a tragic long-distance relationship. Yeah, all of this is melodramatic, but it’s valid.

I wouldn’t ever have felt any of this had I not board that plane four years ago when I first went to the States. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this post had I not packed my bags and said goodbye to my friends, family, then-boyfriend, and everyone else. Uprooting and traveling; it’s hard, it’s fun, it’s enlightening, it’s exhausting, it’s weird, it’s scary. Now, sitting here writing this at 12 a.m., I realize that it was necessary. Funny how life works out, huh?