The Foreign Mystique


Many people today advocate travel as a way of learning about other places and expanding your understanding of the world. The assumed link between an expanded consciousness and travel is so strong that it seems to justify any and all travel. This is probably how people explain running a North Korean marathon. But, in many cases, what we learn about where we go is much less than we may think. As they say in AA, “wherever you go, there you are.”

Travel is often an exercise in projection. The things we notice may be more pertinent to us than to the place. This semester I have the privilege to be working abroad in England. From my perspective, there aren’t “enough” water fountains and public bathrooms and they “need” good taco places. But these “observations” say more about my needs and interests than any local realities. Yes, it’s possible to observe a real difference that isn’t just personal or a projection—not that many Tube stations are handicap accessible—but my expectations are rooted in my home country and its culture. All of the little conveniences and inconveniences of being in England show the ways in which I am habituated to American culture.

Real knowledge of a place begins at Socrates’ doorstep: “I know that I know nothing.” Too often we fail to get the benefit of going somewhere because we assume we understand what we have barely even seen. Somehow one waiter is a sufficient sample size for evaluating customer service in a foreign country. In his 1860 book, Max Havelaar, the Dutch author Multatuli pointed out that if someone travels far away and spends any amount of time there, you assume the traveler will have an informed opinion. But you consider your own neighbor, who has lived her entire life in your country, to have worthless and uninformed opinions on your nation’s politics and culture. Even today, it seems like the farther away some place is, the easier it is for us to accept any opinion on it as informed. You disagree with your friends about the best restaurants in town, but you take their recommendations when you visit another city.

The superficiality of our knowledge of foreign places is only rivaled by the superficiality of our knowledge of ourselves. Traveling is not “inherently virtuous,” but it can have value. One benefit of travel is in the way that a new place can make us more aware of ourselves and then capable of better understanding ourselves in the context of our old places. When we travel, we often universalize from personal experience. We come home and tell others “what the people there are like” or “how they think about…” based on our own limited experiences or conversations. Universalizing from personal experience is a rational error we should learn to avoid before we leave home, but sometimes it’s not until we’re overseas that we are confronted with differences we cannot just dismiss. When we cease to universalize from our own experience, we can actually see the universe around us. If we can begin to understand how other people can experience the world differently, we can begin to understand why they might prefer different sports teams and political candidates across the world and across town.

Paradoxically, experiencing the world in a strange place actually reveals to us the ways in which we belong to our familiar places. If we go past the Instagram posts to the experience the rhythms of life in other places, we are capable of learning about where we are and where we are from. In Jayber Crow, orphaned Jayber did not “need” to get out and see the world beyond Port William. And the outside world was not especially kind to him. But his appreciation of the rhythms and relationships of Port William was deepened by his experience of the wider world. Travel can do the same for us. If our eyes are open, we can what is special about where we come from and how we fit there.

Travel is thought to make better “citizens of the world.” And if we respect the depth of place wherever we visit, we can certainly learn to respect and appreciate a wider range of human experience. Yes, that extends to foreign countries, but it can also extend to our own friends and neighbors. If we also learn about ourselves and our homes through travel, we don’t just become better “citizens of the world”—we can become more conscious and thoughtful citizens of our own places. After this semester, I hope to go home with a better understanding of England. I also hope to go home without a better understanding of myself and my own cultural expectations. In the meantime, I am longing for my local taco spot and fighting my desire to theorize about London from anecdotal evidence.


  1. Dr. Stice, your piece brought back many great memories and some that were hard to acknowledge. For there is truth to what Burdick and Lederer pointed out in their influential novel, The Ugly American. I don’t believe we have to totally assimilate to understand a local culture not our own, but there is a certain level of immersion that is required to have an honest and genuine take on a local culture.

    We can learn some things by visiting other cultures. And, as you point out, we might be able to learn something of ourselves. However, taking residence is an entirely different thing than visiting a place. You are correct that much of ourselves is still with us when we visit a place. But, successfully taking residence some place means a giving up something of ourselves in order to gain the enriching experience of a place.

    I’ve lived for extended periods of time in the Philippines and Finland and spent weeks in missionary work in Constanta, Romania. Those experiences taught me I need to immerse myself in the culture in order to be effective and gain a true perspective. When I would stay in Helsinki in a hotel designed for tourists and business travelers, I didn’t really experience the local place. When I eventually moved to Finland, everything changed as I entered the rhythms of life of those in my neighborhood and a local church into which I stumbled. I learned more about Finnish people and Finland itself than I ever could by any other means. My new Finnish friends embraced me much differently than other expatriates who seemed to collect themselves in sectors of the city and cling to each other. I grew to understand there is more than the American way to do something.

    The experience of being immersed in cultures not my own helps me to actually apply a broader perspective on things, not just acknowledge that there are other perspectives.

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