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Alternative Title: Am I a Superficial Traveler?

When I posted the results of my reader survey, there were a few topics that were simply too complicated to address in a sentence or two. One of them was this. A few commenters were a tad critical of the level of cultural immersion I’ve managed in my travels — specific respondents pointed out (with varying degrees of accuracy) that I don’t delve very deep into the history of the places I write about, that I never talked about learning Thai despite spending so long in the country, and that all my friends are white.


It’s true, I never learned Thai. I could rattle off some excuses — on Koh Tao, where I’ve spent the vast majority of my time, the only Thai language school is a front for selling long term visas, and Burmese is probably spoken at least as frequently on the island as Thai is. But those are excuses. The truth is that I was lazy, Thai was hard, and I’ve never been gifted with languages. I want that to change. When I return to Thailand later this year, I will seek out a (non-visa selling fraud of a) language school to learn some of the basics of Thai language structure. It’s a country I love and plan to return to over and over, I have no excuse for not making an attempt to learn more than ten phrases. That was constructive criticism, and I appreciate it.

I was a little hurt by the accusation that I don’t focus on history or culture, because I seek out both when I travel. However, that feedback helped me realize that I often shy away from writing about those topics because I am terrified of misinterpreting something, or of positioning myself as an authority on a society that is not my own. What if I write about the culture of whaling in Iceland tons of Icelandic people comment telling me I’m an ignorant buffoon? Ah yes, that already happened! But history and culture are two topics I love and this blog should reflect that. That too was constructive criticism I appreciate.

But let’s talk about this all-white-friends business, shall we?

Friends from Spain, South Africa, Finland, the US and the UK

I think there is a misconception about travel that you merely have to stroll down the street in some exotic land and locals will be at your side clamoring to invite you home to dinner with their families or to give you a personal tour of a secret hidden beach or to walk their daughter down the aisle at her wedding or whatever. They don’t. And honestly, as a woman often traveling alone, I’d have to be fairly suspicious of those invitations for my own safety.

I have been shown incredible kindness by strangers who invited me to join a conversation, to share a roadside snack, to hitch a ride, and to makes sure I was safely and hospitably welcomed to their country without expectation of anything in return. But those instances are rare, and the line is drawn at some point, as my friend Matt has . The Thai women who wordlessly shared their homemade sticky rice with me while we sat at the pier waiting for a ferry didn’t invite me home to learn how to make it, you know? And why would they? I’m just one of a million blondes bobbing through their homeland.

There are places that stand out to me as being exceptionally friendly. I think Scottish people are born with hospitality running through their veins, and Filipinos will probably make you cry with the warmth they will show you. But the world is getting smaller and there are fewer and fewer destinations where a visitor from another culture is regarded with excitement and fascination. Think how you regard an obvious tourist, map in hand, navigating their way around your hometown. Do you stop them on the street and offer to bring them home to meet your family? Or do you simply bump into them as you make your way to work?Β  It becomes even more difficult to make that connection when the economy of your destination is based on tourism. Once you are seen as a client or customer (or walking wallet, as some people would less-kindly put it), it’s hard to make that leap to friend.

I can think of three of my peers who have a natural knack for defying the odds and easily and naturally becoming true friends with local people wherever they live and travel. I admire them and think of them often in a “What Would ____ Do?” kind of way. And there are travelers who go out of their way to make that connection via , and hosting groups, and other avenues. Hats off to those that make that effort in their home country as well.

I’m proud of the diversity of the friends I’ve made in my travels around the world. I’ve counted South African, British, Spanish, Finnish, Turkish, Belgian, Indian, and Colombian friends among my UN-like crew of travel buddies. But it is undeniably true that those were fellow travelers and ex-pats rather than locals in the countries I was currently visiting.

My time in Thailand is where this lack of local friends is most glaring, simply because I’ve spent so much time there. Yet after a year living on Koh Tao, I had no Thai friends. The island was once a penal colony, inhabited by just a few families eking out an existence on coconut farming when the tourism boom hit in the 1980’s. Hence, there is no strong community or economy outside tourism, and even today the only school on the island goes only to age 12. Young people are sent off-island by their families — thus the population of Thais in my age bracket on Koh Tao is practically non-existent. The one dive shop I knew of that had both Thai management and Thai instructors, a place where I knew every employee by name and was always welcomed with a smile? It’s currently closing. And it is a different culture. As a Thai-speaker pointed out to me in a bar in Bangkok, the sign on the wall technically forbid her from being there — “No Thai women allowed,” it read, insinuating that any Thai woman who would want to be in that bar was up to no good. This was a popular expat bar in the middle of the city. It is not socially acceptable for Thai women my own age — “good girls,” raised the way I was, to socialize in that way.

When I went to Indonesia one of the things that drew me to the dive shop I did my Divemaster Course with was the close relationship between the foreign and local staff. I was impressed with the level of interaction and camaraderie, which was more than I had ever seen in a dive center. But again, an invisible line was drawn. While the Indonesian staff sometimes joined the Western instructors for drinks at the bar, they never did come to dinner. When I asked to accompany one of the employees to mosque for Ramadan, that request was met with an uncomfortable brush-off.

Like most of us, I’m always striving to be a better human, a better traveler, and a better blogger. I wrote this post with two intentions. One was to respond to the criticism I received and ponder the question I asked in my somewhat snarky alternative title: Am I a superficial traveler? The other is as a reminder to myself that no, it isn’t easy to learn languages, to write about complex topics, or to have meaningful interactions with local people. At least not for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to challenge myself to do just those things in the future. Because I don’t want to skim the surface, or be a skin-deep traveler. I want to live and breathe the places I go, and maybe that takes a little bit more work on my part.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you make meaningful, true friendships with local people when you travel? Do you learn the local language? Writers, how do you handle complex topics like cultures that aren’t your own?

  • Ruann (Solo Travel Uncut)
    January 21 2014

    Hi Meihoukai. I admire your ability to take criticism so positively. It’s strange how a hundred positive comments can seem nonexistent in the shadow of a single negative one.

    As to learning a local language like Thai, it’s easier said than done. When I lived in Mozambique I managed to communicate in Portuguese after just a few months, but in Korea I’m really struggling, and it’s almost a year.

    I have to admit, the relationships that had in Mozambique had so much depth and love in them that it’s hard to describe. In Korea I don’t have one single local friend, which is pretty sad.

    As to tackling these complex cultural topics, I’d say I try to see them from the viewpoint of a human being, and not a westerner. I recently wrote an article of a brutal African wedding, where the bride was literally abused and forced to do unimaginable things. I ended the article like this:

    “We all have different reasons for our traditions and beliefs. Sometimes it’s just really hard to try to understand.
    What we think is sheer brutality, might just be beautiful somewhere else.
    Normality is just a volatile perception.
    Or is it not?”

    I think that, as writers, it’s also our job to say how we feel about it, without judging.

    Great article Meihoukai!
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    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      I tend to be very open to criticism because I think that’s how we learn and grow, and I feel appreciative that someone has taken the time to share their thoughts with me, even if they are negative ones. Still, I was surprised to see this thread among a (admittedly small) number of survey respondents. Then I thought about the media obsession with the lack of diversity on the tv show Girls, and I felt a little less alone πŸ™‚

  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad
    January 21 2014

    Great post! I think this is a really interesting topic. I used to think of myself as a traveler who always got to know locals and learned the language- I did Couchsurfing, lived abroad long-term and usually lived with local families. But once I got to Asia I started to wonder if I was really that kind of traveler after all- out of everywhere I’ve been, Southeast Asia was the hardest place for me to connect with locals. I think the biggest problem was the language barrier- I know no Thai, Vietnamese or any other Asian languages and a lot of the locals I met could only speak very basic English.

    Additionally I think we just have such different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds that it can be hard to connect. But I’m sure if you learned Thai it would be 100% easier so that’s a great idea! πŸ™‚
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