“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
I hear it all the time – when talking about travel or when friends look at my trip photos – how “weird” certain aspects of other cultures are. But, what is really weird in this enormous world of diversity?
According to Webster’s Online Dictionary, the definition of weird is “Suggesting the operation of supernatural influences,” “fantastic,” or “bizarre.”
I can see how travelers believe certain ways of dress, customs, festivals, foods or beliefs can be bizarre, but when we’re standing on foreign soil, aren’t we the ones who are weird?
Is It Really All That Weird?
When visiting China, I was fascinated by their “weird” obsession with being white. Locals walk around carrying open umbrellas to shield their skin from the sun. They purchase face whitening cream, body whitening cream, nipple whitening cream and even armpit whitening cream. At the beach, some locals even take to wearing a “facekini,” a mask covering a person’s entire face, head and neck, with holes cut out for the eyes, nose and mouth. To me, an American who grew up 10 minutes from the beach, the desire to be as pale as possible was the weirdest I had ever heard of. However, I’m sure if any locals had gone through my bag and found my tanning cream and bronzing powder, they would have believed me to be pretty weird, as well.
An even simpler example is when I returned home from Ghana with myriad photos of foods my family had never seen before. My mom spied a picture I had taken of a piece of Tilapia with it’s skin and head – including the eyes, still attached – still attached and not deboned.[pullquote]”That’s really weird,” commented my mom. “How could you eat something like that?”[/pullquote]
“That’s really weird,” commented my mom. “How could you eat something like that?”
In reality, the United States is one of the only places in the world who needs to believe they’re not eating fish that was once alive, taking off the skin, chopping off the head and deboning the meat. The bones, however, give it much more flavor, and aside for the fact it was a bit of a nuisance picking out the tiny ones, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. My mom would have too, as fish is her favorite food, aside for the fact the cultural twist on the dish would have scared her away. The downfall is closing our mind off from what we don’t know.
Traveling’s Effect On “Weird”
For the most part, one benefit of traveling is that our perception of weird changes as we grow. On my first trip abroad I went to Sydney, Australia, and I remember thinking everything was weird. The way they ate Turkish and Thai food instead of pizza when coming home drunk, the way they called flip-flops “thongs,” the way they called to-go meals “takeway.” Despite being a western country, it was hard to completely adjust to this “weird” new way of life at first. As my travels have expanded to cultures even more different from my own, like Morocco, Thailand, Bolivia and Ecuador, I began to slowly change my way of looking at things. These cultures weren’t weird, but just different from my own. Isn’t that why I was traveling in the first place?
Good Or Bad?
I don’t think seeing things as weird is necessarily a bad thing, depending on what your line of thinking is and who you’re saying it to. If you’re in Peru and you tell a local their clothes are weird, that’s just plain rude, and not a good way to assimilate into any culture. However, if you’re talking to a trusted friend discussing why some facet of a culture is bizarre to you, I think that’s okay as long as you’re open to learning and understanding it more. Going back to my example above of the Chinese favoring pale skin, despite me thinking it was an odd practice, I didn’t mock or insult anyone for it. Instead, I tried to understand why they thought this way, and learned they believed white skin had the ability to hide even the most ugly imperfection. Instead of thinking it was “weird,” I looked at it as “interesting” and maybe even something I should try.[pullquote]…instead of observing everything you see as weird, dive right into the culture, experience it and gain an understanding.[/pullquote]
When experiencing something new in a foreign culture, make sure to keep an open mind. Don’t judge anyone for their beliefs or customs just because they’re different from your own. Not only is it insulting, it will inhibit your ability to gain knowledge on your trip. So instead of observing everything you see as weird, dive right into the culture, experience it and gain an understanding.
And remember, when you’re the traveler standing on foreign soil, it’s more likely that you’re the weird one, not the locals you encounter.
What’s your opinion on the word “weird” when traveling?