I’ve never been abroad, not in the true sense of the word. Despite growing up in the San Diego area, and living less than 50 miles from the US/Mexico border, I never felt a need to cross the border, even when you didn’t a passport, or special driver’s license or anything like that. I couldn’t imagine that Mexico was that different from where I was. Part of this mindset was reinforced with racist comments from neighbors, friends of my parents, and friends parents. Their argument boiled down to the following: Because there were so many Mexicans in San Diego, we were becoming a lot like Mexico, and didn’t Mexicans harbor a resentment towards the US, because they used to own most of the Western United States, so really all the illegal aliens crossing the border (AND IT COULD ANYONE OF THE MEXICANS YOU SEE ON THE STREET) is a quiet invasion of America. One day the Mexicans would claim California as their own, just you wait. They fact that many immigrants were allowed to exist in our country without learning English also proved a popular sticking point.
Another part of my non-traveling mindset comes from the notion that Southern California, if not California in general, is an idealized America. There is a beach, seemingly never ending sunshine, delicious food, good looking people (some of them are even in the movies!), and so much more. A lot of popular stories worship either New York City or Southern California, and therefore, as a young person living there, didn’t Southern California have everything you wanted and needed? Why would you ever want to leave?
I was indoor kid for a long time. I had noses in books, eyes glued to the TV, ears to the ground, all focused on places that weren’t here. Sure, sunshine was nice, but what about pounding rainstorms, what about tropical rain forests, what about mountains that defined the word pristine, what about quiet forests, what about snow? Over time, I did some traveling to various parts of the United States to visit family (Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia), and then DC/NYC for a week long eighth grade class trip. But when I set out to look for colleges, I began with the knowledge that college involved going somewhere else. You leave home. Staying at home, to me, was an admission of failure, a lack of ambition. How could you say Southern California was the best possible place in the best possible country when you had never been anywhere else?
So I left for college in Washington, where is was supposed to rain all the time. After only 6 months at college, I took my first international trip (which happened to be the only memorable spring break I ever had). I tagged along with some friends who went to Canada. This was when you really should have had a passport to cross the border, but you could still get across without one. I spent three days in Vancouver, staying in a hostel with wooden floors that had warped to the point where you could see long rolling bumps and dips. Vancouver was one of the first real big cities I had ever been to as an adult, and the foreignness of the city shocked me more than anything particularly Canadian.
Three months later, during the summer, I wound up spending a few days in the eponymous American big city: New York. Now older, and having been there before, New York held different wonders. I’ve never been anywhere like New York, but I was on my way to becoming a cinephile. After watching so many movies, is there anything that’s surprising about New York? It’s a fun city to explore, but Vancouver was where I really felt foreign in a city, and the city landscape. Now, I live in a big city, and I like visiting big cities, and I feel comfortable in city life. But I’ve never been to a place where I didn’t speak the language, where I was the other, which is to say I have had one of big spiritual traveling experiences that people have and occasionally write books about. The longest trip I’ve ever taken was a two week, impromptu cross country road trip, but that seems like a uniquely American experience. Anywhere across an ocean is foreign to me.
In 8 days, I will be going on my first international flight. I finally have a passport. I will be staying in a large, European city, largely by myself for three days, before decamping to a smaller, university town for a week long class that amounts to a cultural exchange about How Things Are Done In Sweden. I’m interested in the class, surely, but really, the allure is in the travel, which is also to say that the allure is challenging my identity.
Every six months, I fill out a survey that I stole off the internet some six years ago, and have been tweaking and adjusting for my own purposes ever since. It’s a way for me to document my life in some kind of measurable way, and when I was filling it out following the end of June, having completed both my winter and spring quarters, I realized that my first year in graduate school hasn’t been a happy one, but it had been useful. I’m interested to see what sticks when I’m thrust into a completely different situation, by myself. When I have to live for myself, outside of my usual sphere, where I am given foreign territory and have no one telling me what to do, I’m interested to see what I discover not just about charming Sweden, but also about myself, or if I don’t discover anything at all.