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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.

Ouch.

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?

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102 Comments...
  • 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!
    Ruann (Solo Travel Uncut) recently posted..

    • 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™‚
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      Yes, the cultural and socioeconomic background difference is huge. I met a girl who had taught diving on Koh Phi Phi and on Koh Tao for years and never dated Thai guys, and thought that just wasn’t her type. Then she moved to Bangkok and within weeks she had a Thai boyfriend who like her had gone to university, loved art, and was well-traveled. Meeting someone from a similar background, while a world apart, made all the difference. While part of what I love about travel is meeting people vastly different from myself, it can be hard to translate that into a meaningful relationship.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    January 21 2014

    I’ve made meaningful friendships with locals when I’ve lived someplace long enough–e.g. I was in Denmark for eight months in 2006 and met one of my best friends who I still see near-annually while there–but it’s harder when you’re not a “slow traveler.” I’m usually only in a place for a week, two tops, and while I try to meet as many people as I can, it’s hard to really get to know the owner of that hole-in-the-wall ramen joint when you’re only there briefly. Though I used to make a lot of long-term friends through staying in hostels–many whom I still see a decade or more later when passing through their towns (thanks to Facebook for that–and I would love to do more slow travel to delve deeper into a place and its people (eventually, that is…don’t foresee it happening anytime soon).
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      Yeah, I’ve always had a pretty easy time feeling fellow travelers and expats — and thanks to Facebook, staying in touch with them! Those are beautiful relationships that I really treasure, but it’s true that I’ve made very few friends that were non-travelers, just living their lives, while I was on the road. Even when I’ve been living somewhere a for over a year, like Thailand! I think that is just an entirely different ballgame, especially in a culture like the one in Thailand where the ways people interact are very different from the way they do in my own culture.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    January 21 2014

    P.S. I’ve never pegged you as superficial OR thought anything about the friends you post on here other than “wow, what an international bunch!”
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      And PS: Ha, yeah… my last three foreign boyfriends should count for SOMETHING, no? πŸ˜‰

  • Breanna
    January 21 2014

    This was a really good topic. I thought I was going to Brasil and was going to meet all kinds of locals and have a ton of friends. Turns out not so much. Now I’m lucky that I have a local Brasilian as a friend and the only friends I made down there were his family. And only those comfy enough to speak English with me.

    I wouldn’t say it’s all on the traveller to make local friends. The locals I have observed down there were interesting they all wanted to make me comfortable offer food and that kind of thing but that’s where it ended the language barrier being the biggest. They were uncomfortable plain and simple.

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      The language barrier can be a huge factor, as can a natural suspicion/discomfort with outsiders. When I asked my Indonesian co-workers to take me to the mosque, they were visibly squirming! I don’t think any of them wanted to be the one to bring the white girl to Ramadan services πŸ™‚

  • Silvia
    January 21 2014

    You addressed this so well, Meihoukai. Meeting locals is something I’ve struggled with in places as well, especially as I’m not the most outgoing person. For me it’s really coming down to one thing: whether or not I’m sticking to “the beaten track.”

    In more remote places that don’t see many tourists, like Central Asia or parts of Africa, I’ve never had a problem meeting locals. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan especially, people were literally welcoming me with open arms (sometimes too friendly, ha).

    But that’s made it harder for me to travel in tourist-heavy areas like Southeast Asia, because it just doesn’t happen there. Like you said, I’m just another blonde bobbing through. The contrast can feel harsh.

    It seems like you’ve mostly stuck to fairly touristy routes (which is totally fine- I love your travels!) so that might be part of your difficulty? You’re right the world is getting smaller, but there are still lots of places where locals greet a foreigner with awe and excitement!

    Also, I speak a bunch of languages (super language nerd), lived in Thailand for a year, and barely speak five words of Thai. It’s so, so hard!!
    Silvia recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      I too can be very shy and wouldn’t label myself as outgoing. And I 100% agree that the “tourist meter” of a destination is a huge factor. While I do try to get off the beaten track, I do so within fairly touristy countries. I would love to challenge myself to somewhere truly exotic!

  • Jamie
    January 21 2014

    I think your writing style is fine how it is, but should you choose to interject some history in there that would be just fine. People will ALWAYS have an opinion and at best maybe it would open up the comment dialog to more information that was unknown about the area before. As far as making local friends. While it’s WONDERFUL in theory, “locals” aren’t on holiday. So even at home, I may have a drink on a Tuesday and chat up someone visiting town but unfortunately that doesn’t mean I’d have the time really hang out beyond the few hours that I’m there. No matter how friendly it may take people some time to want to welcome a stranger into their world, and by the time that happens the traveler could be ready to move on to the next town already. I think you’re doing just fine as you are.
    Jamie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      That’s a great point about “beers on a Tuesday”, and at the heart of what I think makes it very challenging as a traveler to befriend a local. Of course, when you’re an expat that reasoning doesn’t apply but there are a whole host of other challenges there as well. It’s a complicated issue!

  • Sarah
    January 21 2014

    Interesting post. I think it is easier said than done to connect with locals, but have found that I always make effort and it always pays off. I spent a year living in Thailand in a small town and teaching at a high school – so it was easier for me to make friends that way, and now I have quite the family in Thailand that I go back to see. I will say that places like Koh Tao, Phi Phi, etc. are harder to bond with the locals because they have completely different views on “farang” or foreigners than most Thai people – because they only interact with the people who are only there to party and don’t so much care about the history, learning about the King, the language, etc. I never took a language class while I was there but left with a pretty good handle on Thai because I pretty much only hung out with Thai people. When I went to Khao San Rd in BKK I went to the one bar on the street that is full of almost exclusively Thai people. I listened to Thai music. I went to Thai music festivals. Thai people are so kind, so welcoming, so happy – I hope you do have a chance to meet more of them the next time you are there! They love hanging out with farang and practicing English and you’ll learn so much about Thai culture – it’s win win!

    • Meihoukai
      January 21 2014

      That sounds like an awesome experience you had, Sarah! I love Thai culture, history, and even music (still dying to see Job2Do in person!) and have read and learned a lot about it over my time in the country. And I had what I considered quite warm and friendly relationships with a lot of Thais on Koh Tao — the staff of the Thai dive center I mentioned, my Muay Thai trainers, a bartender at one of the bars I frequented. However I also had a few borderline traumatic incidents with some of those people that reminded me those relationships were based on commerce, not friendship, and that was a tough lesson to learn. And that wasn’t their fault — those people were at work, after all. Loved reading your comment, and I hope you’ll swing by again!

  • becky hutner
    January 21 2014

    another thought-provoking post from mademoiselle wanderland. how do you churn out such quality so fast?? (& how bout a blog post on the subject?)

    how & where we make friends is such a personal matter that it’s hard to provide any general rules of thumb. for eg. some people are saying it’s hard to connect with locals in southeast asia whereas i’ve had the most luck connecting with people in southeast asia. but when i think about this, i realize i’ve always gravitated towards asian people, that if there was one asian kid in my class, that person would be my best friend & that half my friends in LA are asian. so like i said, personal! on the flipside alex, you seem to pick up fellow traveler friends with great ease while i can’t think of one traveler i’ve ever kept in touch with. in fact, on my recent 7 wk trip to southeast asia, i had only ONE conversation with another traveler that was longer than a minute. now that’s pretty sad.

    there are so so many factors at play in the game of human connection. where you are (touristy? non touristy? city? country?), who you’re with (your boyfriend? yourself? a fellow hot blond?), what you’re doing, what kind of vibe you’re giving off that day, what potential friends are present @ your exact coordinates!

    personally i’ve had luck with more off-the-beaten track places, with towns & rural areas over major cities & with just kind of wandering. obviously having some kind of prearranged “in” is hugely helpful — ie) meeting my sponsored family in legazpi, philippines or a friend of a friend in saigon for dinner. even if the connection is tenuous, i will always try to make one before traveling b.c it makes me feel significantly more included.

    my parting words for this comment alex are — JUST WAIT FOR BURMA. the people i met there really were waiting to welcome my husband & i into their homes & were incredibly generous with their time. but there go those generalizations again…
    becky hutner recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      I definitely agree that having some kind of “in” is key, whether it’s a friend of friend or a Couchsurfing connection or whatever. When I was in Singapore for 24 hours I was shown around with a local who took me out to dinner — one of my travel buddies put me in touch with a girl she used to work with! I guarantee that wouldn’t have happened otherwise in the short time I was there.

      And those are very encouraging words about Burma! I’ll likely be traveling alone there as well which is always conducive to meeting people. Although, I guess this post was less about meeting people on a quick trip, and more about making long-term friendships as an expat/long term traveler. It’s a fine distinction but I think there’s a huge difference.

      • becky hutner
        January 22 2014

        no that is a major distinction & i am not a long term traveler so you can basically scratch everything i said lol. the longest i’ve been in one place was 1 month (& guess what i have no friends from this time).
        becky hutner recently posted..

        • becky hutner
          January 22 2014

          sorry, the longest i’ve traveled in one place.
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          • Meihoukai
            January 22 2014

            Ha, I definitely don’t think it invalidates everything you’ve said! But I think the distinction is that people probably wouldn’t be writing to me asking why I have no Thai friends had I not spent a cumulative YEAR living there. Had I just bounced through, it would be obvious why, you know? It’s hard to forge wedding-invite level friendships after a few days!

  • Caty
    January 21 2014

    I really liked this post, especially your perspective on how we treat tourist in our homecountries. I work as a Barista and sometimes strike up conversations with tourists but I would never think about showing them around town. But maybe I should start reconsidering it since I love getting to know other cultures when I’m abroad. Since I spent most of my time abroad as an au pair I was lucky to become part of a family and get more inside views into a culture than other travelers would. Surprisingly, it was the hardest making local friends in the US because all the kids my age were off to college so the town where I lived was full of au pairs from other countries but not many locals. Living with families also made it easier to connect because they either had cousins/brothers etc. my age that they would introduce me to or in South Africa we were four!!! au pairs for one family and one of the girls was from Pretoria so she took us out and introduced us to her friends. One of them even came to visit me in Germany and we traveled around Europe for three weeks. But the culture were I feel luckiest that I got such an inside view was of course Sri Lanka. I had so many great experience that I would otherwise never had. And for the language part I am also a language nerd (changed high schools in 9th grade to go to a billingual school with a focus on languages) so I always pick up phrases. I was lucky that my university offered a sinhalese course so I took that for three semesters. So now I’m able to read it and make basic conversations. It’s a difficult language but being able to talk to his nephews and the rest of the family was worth all the struggles. They were so excited that I finally understood them that they always insisted on playing “school” with me. They would write the sinhalese word and I had to copy it. I still have all my notes from these classes. =)
    But what I wanted to say is don’t beat yourself up about not interacting much with locals. It is not as easy as some make it out to be and I enjoy reading your blog no matter what.

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      Definitely dating someone from a different culture is a special way to experience it. I doubt I would have fallen in love with Scotland the way I did had I not been shown around by a loving family who treated me as one of their own. And being an au pair, that is certainly a special way to make lasting relationships when you travel, wow!

  • Andi
    January 21 2014

    I can’t imagine that whoever left that comment really reads your blog, because there is noway a regular reader would ever in a million years think you were superficial!
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    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      Well, just to be clear, no one accused me of being a superficial traveler πŸ™‚ I asked that question of myself after various survey respondents asked these “why don’t you learn the language,” “why don’t you talk about history and culture,” and “why are all your friends white” questions!

  • Ron
    January 21 2014

    Cultural differences aside, if you are a traveler you will always be an outsider. If you have relatives overseas that is a different matter, but as a tourist you will be treated differently. Even as a relation you will likely be treated differently as you are still the overseas relative.

    This can be true even when traveling in your home country, but not so much as we all have ties that bind us in the country we grew up in. We belong in a way that is just not possible in other places. We are natives here where ever here is.

    No matter how you act, what you learn, or how many languages you speak, you will be a outsider when visiting foreign countries. This is not a bad thing, rather a fact. The good news is you have a home where people love you.

    Learn what you can from the criticisms on this blog, but its your blog to do what you will. Always be true to yourself and your family/friends.

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      This comment reminds me of that country song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” and that line that says, “there’s only one place they call you one of their own.” πŸ™‚ I like to think of myself as a global citizen, but I can’t deny that there is always a place that feels undeniably like home.

  • Kally
    January 21 2014

    I love learning about the local culture but I usually do that through reading non-fiction books, museums, etc (we spent AGES in the Museum of Siam..happily!). I’ve noticed on travel blogs in my reader that when the writers get into history I subconsciously tune out and scroll faster! I love to see new adventures and hear great stories instead.

    And not that you aren’t or can’t be a history writer, but it seems to me like it is a different style that might not be captured as effectively when mixed in on a travel blog layout. You hit it dead on with wondering if you would misinterpret or not being a full authority on a subject. I appreciate the exhaustive process of addressing history so I hit the books for that.

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      I definitely don’t think I’m in any danger of making Meihoukai in Wanderland into a history blog πŸ™‚ But I do appreciate what you’re saying. I think I try to tie things in when they are interesting to me (for example my visit to the Chan Chan ruins that I recently covered) and I could do a bit more of that.

      PS: The Museum of Siam is so cool!

  • Laryssa
    January 21 2014

    The person who implied you’re a superficial traveler obviously hadn’t read your thought-provoking post about traveling through Vietnam!

    As Ashley said… Southeast Asia sounds like a tough beast.
    The cities I remember most fondly are those where I made connections (also using Couchsurfing meetups). I somehow didn’t like Buenos Aires or Melbourne at ALL because I failed at making any local friends — and I’ve never heard of anyone hating on those places.

    Clearly, I have some room for improvement!
    Laryssa recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      You know, that’s an interesting point and I feel in some ways I was comfortable writing those things about Vietnamese history because I was reflecting on my guilt re: America’s involvement in it. I didn’t think about it, but that kind of reinforces what I wrote here!

  • Making friends, whether it’s in our home country or overseas, is usually forged when we have something to connect on. This doesn’t always happen when there is the “traveller” divide. I found I made the most amount of local friends during my recent jaunt through SE Asia in the Philippines, but again, similar backgrounds – educated, well travelled etc. Going up to someone on the street and saying “hey let’s be friends!” could be successful but creepy at the same time!

    As far as talking about other cultures goes, don’t be afraid to put your opinions and thoughts out there. People come back to your blog because of your personality that is behind it. If we wanted an impartial report there’s the rest of the internet. We want to hear what YOU think, what YOU feel, what YOUR observations were. You will never make everybody happy, but a healthy debate is never a bad thing, no?
    Michelle | Lights Camera Travel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      Okay, and Filipinos are seriously the friendliest people on the planet. I walked into a nail salon to get a pedicure and walked out with two phone numbers of sweet ladies who begged me to let them give me a city tour on their day off later in the week. And I would have loved to had I not been leaving! For someone who really wants to have significant interactions with local people when traveling, that’s where I’d point them.

  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    January 21 2014

    This is really insightful and well-written Meihoukai. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – people will be eager to blame the traveler, but that doesn’t always mean the locals are clamoring to hang out and be bffs. For me, it’s taken two years to get the wedding invites and the family dinners and all that type of stuff with the local islanders here. The reality is, in an area where everyone is so transient and a million girls just like us come and go on the daily, there is no reason for the locals to put much effort out there for people who just disappear. Even approaching two years here, I’m starting to feel the same way. In the absolute worst way to say it (in my head it doesn’t sound as bad), I don’t want to ‘waste’ my time forging two-day friendships while neglecting my expat and local friends who are actually going to be here next week. I love chatting with travelers when I’m sitting at the bar, but I no longer sign up for partying nightly with them – just because I live at the beach doesn’t mean I’m on holiday too! This is my real life and I can’t go out every single night the way I did when I came here on holidays. Sometimes travelers have a hard time understanding that.

    So in short, that very long paragraph said don’t blame the traveler, blame the locals πŸ™‚

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      You’re so right — it’s expats too! One of my close friends on Koh Tao was so slow to warm up to me at first, and when I left she burst into tears, saying, “I wasn’t supposed to like you!” After half a decade on the island she’s sick of having “best friends” that stay six months or a year and then move on. It’s too heartbreaking! And I really understand that side of things too. Interesting to be able to be on both sides of the equation.

  • Jimmy Dau
    January 21 2014

    Beautiful post. I love your attitude to criticism and how you explain the realities.

    I had the grand plan of meeting lots of locals on my last trip but it’s difficult to do so when you need to pack up and leave after 5 days. There are moments when you have a unique connection but those are few and far between.

    It’s a huge learning and as a result I’m only planning 5 countries in the next 12 months. I’m a firm believer that you need to strive to make a personal impact on other people to be able to really get to know somebody so that’s my ambition for travelling this year.
    Jimmy Dau recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      That sounds like a great plan, Jimmy. I agree, you’re literally almost never going to forge close friendships when you’re on the move every few days. Slowing down at least increases your odds!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    January 21 2014

    I think people who don’t do a ton of traveling but just read a lot of travel blogs maybe get a skewed perspective of the number of “local” experiences that come the way of long-term travelers. We tend to remember those special moments even if someone is only writing about them once every six months and so we assume that they happen a lot more frequently than they really do.

    I love meeting locals and have always found that the places where I am able to meet people living and working in that country tend to be my favorite, but it’s really not easy, and truthfully doesn’t happen all that often. We’ve learned to content ourselves with positive, but briefer interactions, like a short conversation with a vendor (not always easy with the language barrier) or even just a smile and a nod. I’m sure part of this is because I am naturally a bit shy and my tendencies are not to just approach people and start chatting, but part of it is because other people are busy and have their own friends and they don’t really care about the random white people swarming around them.

    I have found that a great way to meet locals is through CouchSurfing. It’s sort of a guaranteed way to find people who are interested in forming connections and meet new people, and even when we haven’t actually stayed with someone but have just met them for dinner or drinks, it’s been really interesting and fun. It’s a good way to take charge and be proactive rather than waiting for a stranger to sit next to you on the bus and strike up a conversation.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      You are probably very right about how blogs can skew people’s ideas of the realities of travel. When I talked to one of my expat friends about this post while writing it, he said, “I guarantee that person has never lived in Asia as a non-Asian.”

      I too, think I have found a lot of joy in the small interactions, and learned to be content with them. A stranger helping me get off at the right train stop, and laughter-filled interaction with a street vendor — those can be very fulfilling, even if they don’t lead to life-long friendships.

  • Jessie
    January 22 2014

    I think for all the things you do on the road you do a great job of exploring the culture. As far as I can tell anyway haha. I can definitely relate on the learning thai issue. I had so badly wanted to learn the language, I love being able to communicate in a foreign language, but every time I tried they simply told me “speak English.” This was disheartening at first as I actually was trying!! It is hard, and even harder when there really aren’t many resources or schools that I saw teaching it! In Central America I am doing a Spanish course though for sure! So excited!! πŸ™‚ Peace and love
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    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      Ha, I know that reaction! In the touristy areas I would sometimes very proudly order my food in Thai only to have it boredly spit back at me in English. In Central America I think you will have a MUCH easier time! There are tons of schools and tutors and while it is hit or miss, there are plenty of locals who are excited to try to help you struggle through a conversation.

  • Amanda @ Farsickness
    January 22 2014

    I’ve always had a difficult time making friends with locals because I tend to be pretty shy and won’t just strike up a conversation with my waiter, and like you said, as a female it is hard to just go to someone’s house for safety reasons. That being said, making local friends in Asia is so much harder than in Europe probably due to the language, cultural, and (I’ll probably be crucified for saying this) economic differences. Also, maybe I’m jaded, but if someone is like overly friendly to me I am usually suspicious of their motives.

    Also, I kind of respect that you don’t delve too deeply into history and culture aspects. I sometimes wonder how much an authority people can be after spending a few days or weeks in a place.
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      I feel the same way, Amanda. I always admire those friends I wrote about in this post who are so good at making connections with anyone, regardless of their differences. Two of those guys went to Cambodia recently, met a tuk tuk driver they liked, and paid him a salary for a few days to take them back to his village and around other rural areas. It was an unbelievable and unique adventure but you know what? I couldn’t do that as a woman traveling alone. Sometimes there are limits, fair or not!

  • Rachel of Hippie in Heels
    January 22 2014

    i feel ya girl… and it’s cool that you can write about the constructive criticism like that. I have been here in goa almost a year but this is FULL of foreigners. That’s how they thrive. they have no interest in me.. and beyond that and the socioeconomic standards , add in a caste system & some Men aren’t allowed to be friends with me.. luckily, i have lots of indian friends now but they are all westernized from boarding school and a couple don’t even speak hindi! You don’t need to worry about being “deeper” so they said, you’re doing you & obviously people like it!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      The caste system and gender rules would definitely add another layer of difficulty to that, Rachel! I had a lot of conversations about this exact topic with one of my friends who lived in Goa for a year.

  • Sam
    January 22 2014

    This is a fascinating read, Meihoukai, and something I could be accused of too. Sometimes I don’t want to delve into the history of a place I’m in because it’s dark and depressing and I was to enjoy it as it is now. Does that make me superficial? Maybe. But I can live with that sometimes. I used to couchsurf a lot more when I travelled alone than now that I travel (and work travelling) with my partner – it’s harder to find people willing to host two people to start with, and in some places, harder still to find hosts willing to host a same sex couple. However, I actually made some pretty good friends through Couchsurfing, some of who I still see when given the chance, and many of whom I have with. Certainly speaking other languages, or showing a willingness to learn helps. After our recent travels in South America, my partner and I have come back with more local friends than anywhere else I’ve travelled, and that is no doubt largely due to being able to speak Spanish.

    As for handling complex topics in cultures other than your own, I think the best way is to give your personal spin on it: how did you experience this aspect of the culture? Sometimes, the outsider’s point of view can be illuminating to those who live within that culture, giving a different perspective that wasn’t considered before.
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    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2014

      Yeah, I can imagine that Couchsurfing gets harder when you’re working on the road — that’s kind of my excuse for avoiding it right now. Like, um, thanks for welcoming me into your home! Now what’s the wifi password and do you mind giving me ten to twelve hours alone with my laptop now please? I get enough strange looks in hostels! Ha!

  • LeAnn Beasley
    January 22 2014

    I absolutely loved this post. Ive felt this same way many times. I realized now that I should have tried to learn more dutch while living in bonaire fot two and a half years, but never tried because its hard and I didnt have to. Im making up for it now but rocking the spanish!

    • Meihoukai
      January 23 2014

      Nice, LeAnn! My biggest regret of this trip is not starting it out by living somewhere for a month and taking lessons. Of course I’ve had plenty of practice along the way and have felt a natural improvement just my traveling in Latin America for 3.5 months!

  • Laura
    January 22 2014

    Definitely an interesting topic. In my experience really getting to know locals is easiest and sometimes only possible if you already have an in. I also agree that it’s difficult to find common ground or peers in many touristy places. Any many times as a female, being friendly with locals who we’re exposed to the most (like service industry folks) is just interpreted as an interest in hooking up… I do agree that there are certain cultures whose hospitality breaks down these barriers though! Good for you to try to learn and grow from this criticism.
    Laura recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 23 2014

      Amazing point that I didn’t even think to bring up, Laura. While I didn’t find this to be true in Thailand, in some cultures you REALLY have to be careful who you are friendly to lest your intentions be misinterpreted! Western women have a very bad reputation in some parts of the world. Thanks, media!

  • Alana - Paper Planes
    January 23 2014

    Um…I’ve lived in Thailand for two years, worked in Thai schools and am (trying to) learn the language. And I have 0 Thai friends. Acquaintances, but no friends. I’ve never been invited to a home, or even out to coffee, and the few times I’ve extended an invitation I’ve been politely declined…so I think you’re doing just fine πŸ™‚

    • Meihoukai
      January 23 2014

      I’m really glad you chimed in Alana, as I’m glad to hear I’m not alone (though sorry to hear your advances have been rebuffed, if politely). I think it’s a very hard thing to explain to someone who hasn’t walked in those shoes, though all the Thailand expats I’ve talked to about this are like, “Um, duh… does this even need a post?”

  • Shelley
    January 23 2014

    I think this is an unfair assessment. It isn’t the lack of making local friends- it’s the relative EASE of meeting other travelers on the road. At home, when is the last time you met someone (local or traveler) in a bar or restaurant that you kept in touch with beyond that initial meeting? That should be the measuring stick, not meeting other travelers. It’s not common to create long-lasting friendships during chance encounters, and I don’t make a habit of inviting random people to my home (well, unless he’s cute). So why should we expect that of locals abroad? Travelers, on the other hand, instantly have something in common, and can therefore strike up a conversation, compare notes, discuss upcoming itineraries, etc. No matter where you come from, you’re both visiting [insert city name] and are probably going to similar places. So don’t feel bad about not meeting locals. I challenge the critics to go out and make friends with random people in their hometown πŸ™‚
    Shelley recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 23 2014

      Great angle to look at this from. While I actually have made a friend or two at a bar or random wedding at home, I think that’s only because I’ve become such a traveler I don’t know how to turn it off even when I’m stateside! But you’re right, making friends when you travel is insanely easy. Someone I went to college with pointed that out to me recently, noting that while the only new people she’s befriended since graduation are co-workers, I have about a billion new relationships. It’s one of the best things about travel! And I love your challenge to the critics!

  • Mindy & Ligeia
    January 23 2014

    Very poignantly written! I think it’s important to note that a language barrier between people often prevents a great friendship from developing. It’s usually to blame for the relationship never progressing from mere acquaintances to true friends.

    Even when I lived in Germany for almost 2 years, and I considered myself fluent in the language, I never became close friends with anyone there, because there was still so much I didn’t understand (e.g. culture, customs, etc.) Also, friendship is a two-way street. I may have been more than willing to develop deeper trust and meaning to a friendship, but if the other person doesn’t meet me half way, we get in to “stalker” mode, and that’s not healthy πŸ˜‰

    We’ve now been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for almost 2 years. I work in an office where English is ALWAYS spoken to the westerners, and generally, any attempts to speak my minimal Thai in public, is immediately stopped by the fact that the person I’m trying to speak to, disregards my attempts and goes right into English. I recall my one dinner with a village family who only spoke Thai, and was blown away by how much I learned in 3 hours.

    Learning a language and culture goes beyond the classroom. Once that door is opened, I believe truer and more meaningful friendships are able to walk through.
    Mindy & Ligeia recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 23 2014

      I’m very jealous of that dinner — it sounds like a special experience! Agree that you can only push so far before you just have to let go and accept that you might prize the idea of having local friends more than every day people going about their lives prize having foreign friends. When I return to Thailand I hope to check out the WithLocals site I posted about last week — of course it’s pre-arranged, but I think it’s the closest I’ll get to that dinner with a village family!

  • Anders
    January 23 2014

    I had a good experience meeting locals in Vietnam when I did my divemaster course. Locals and westerners hang out together often, and we went to local places for dinner and birthdays. I am friends with a lot of them on today πŸ˜‰

    In Indonesia however I found it much harder when I was working as a dive instructor. Here there was more of a cliff between locals and westerners and it was just not so normal to hang out in the evenings. But I went to one of the local staff weddings and that was very much appreciated!

    • Meihoukai
      January 24 2014

      Amazing that I thought Indonesia was good for local/foreign staff interaction… maybe I should have been in Vietnam! And I’m still bummed I missed that wedding!

  • wes
    January 23 2014

    People who measure the performance of others as a function of what they would do have a very crappy scale.

    Keep on truckin’

    Wes.

    • Meihoukai
      January 24 2014

      I had to read this 3-4x before I understood it. Thanks for keepin’ my brain wheels spinning.

      • wes
        January 24 2014

        Should have said:

        “People who measure the performance of others as a function of what they *themselves* would do, have a very crappy scale.”

        Your alright, kid. Don’t sweat it. You’re an outlier, so searching for authenticity and meaning out in that blue-sky space of doing what nobody else does requires you – and only you* – to work out what’s right.

        *And also occasionally me.

  • Nina @WhereintheWorldisNina
    January 25 2014

    This is a great post Meihoukai! As an expat in Thailand too I totally feel your pain. While I have learned some Thai…Like enough to order my food without gross dried shrimp and to tell the taxi to make a left turn… I can’t have anything close to a full conversation. I live in Krabi, another tourist-y town. So it’s really not needed.

    I also have few Thai friends. It’s exactly what you said. PLUS, depending what city you are in (I have bounced around quite a bit) it becomes almost impossible if they don’t know SOME English. So you must be nearly fluent in Thai to be friends with them otherwise your 2 minute explanation turns out to be 10 minutes on the translation app on your phone and still not getting it. It becomes frustrating and tiring. On top of that…. If you’re teaching English a second language… All you want is to speak NORMAL ENGLISH FOR ONCE!

    If you are here on a two week holiday… Of course you’re going to love that random night as you sip whiskey and speak in broken English with a random local outside his shop… But that’s not everyday life after the years go by…
    Nina @WhereintheWorldisNina recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 26 2014

      Ha, in Koh Tao we talked about how all of our collective English skills were slowly devolving. We didn’t know what we’d do back in the real world! Luckily it did come back πŸ™‚

  • TammyOnTheMove
    January 25 2014

    It is difficult forming a deep friendship with locals if you only visit a place for a few days. If you are somewhere for a it longer, I always find it the easiest to get to know locals by going into a local pub, not the Western bars, as locals don’t go there. I am always surprised by how quickly you can start a conversation. If you work or volunteer somewhere that is your best bet of course. When I started volunteering in Cambodia my Khmer colleagues always wanted to take me out for dinner all the time, so I could form friendships very quickly.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 26 2014

      Working or volunteering somewhere definitely gives you an “in,” Tammy! Colleague relationships naturally lead to friendships, no matter what the setting. When I think about it one of my most genuine relationships on Koh Tao with a local was with the veterinarian at the clinic I volunteered at.

  • Leif
    January 26 2014

    I hear ya, Thailand is so built around it’s tourist industry that most locals just put up with you for tourist dollars.

    But I think you’re put in more effort than most.

    It really depends on the country. In Guatemala, like Thailand, the locals aren’t interested in mixing or getting to know the tourists. But just over the border i Mexico, locals are a lot more willing to get to know you.
    Leif recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 26 2014

      Interesting, I haven’t been to either but they are both on my “list.” I wonder if I’ll have the same experience someday!

  • Amy
    January 28 2014

    I don’t think you’re a superficial traveler Meihoukai and it shows real strength to face the criticism you received and respond to it. Learning a new language is hard; my boyfriend is a foreign-language teacher but we’ve been moving so fast through Asia that even he hasn’t learned more than a few phrases in each language. As for making local friends, I think it’s hard (but not impossible, as you point out), to make meaningful, lasting connections with local people when you travel partly because you’re always ultimately moving on. Any small connection you make with someone, even if it is just sharing some sticky rice with strangers on a pier is valuable though πŸ™‚

    • Meihoukai
      January 31 2014

      I agree, I really value those fleeting moments of kindness between strangers and I’ve accepted that those are sometimes the most meaningful interactions I will get… and sometimes, that’s enough!

  • Erica
    February 1 2014

    I think it depends on where you go. For us, making local friends in Latin America was super easy – for a couple of reasons. A) I’m brown. B) I speak Spanish. And Shaun was along for the ride. πŸ˜›
    Erica recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 2 2014

      Those would definitely be advantages! The only places I’d ever be mistaken for a local are Scandinavia and, I don’t know, Wisconsin?

  • Rashaad
    February 3 2014

    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?

    I’ve made a decent number of French and Japanese friends but that’s because I’ve lived in Japan and France and I was fortunate enough to meet locals who were eager to meet native English speakers.

    As for when I was packbacking in Southeast Asia, it was a bit more difficult to strike up friendships because I didn’t know any of the local languages. I made a very good Thai that I’ve kept in throughout the years but I developed a friendship with him through luck. So being in the right place in the right time can help you make a friend.
    Rashaad recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 4 2014

      It sounds like language has an incredible amount to do with it, from all the comments that have come in. And yes, luck is another factor indeed πŸ™‚

  • Angie Away
    February 5 2014

    Really insightful post, A. Deep thoughts by Meihoukai in Wanderland!
    Angie Away recently posted..

  • Diana Edelman
    February 11 2014

    This was a very well-written and thought out post, Meihoukai. I have to say, making friends with locals on the road is not always an easy thing. When I was traveling long-term, I didn’t stay with locals, I stayed at hostels where the only locals were those who worked there. While I did hang out with the staff and get to know them, I would not have called them “friends.” Even when traveling, it is hard to befriend locals unless I am in a place for a longer period of time. Sure, I meet locals, I talk to them, share experiences, but nothing that I would consider a friendship.

    That being said, as an expat in Thailand, I have made the effort to befriend locals and have meaningful relationships with them. Granted, there are cultural differences, and at times, slight language/communication barriers, but it is important to me to not just hang out with Westerners where I live.

    I have lived here for a year-and-a-half and have picked up pieces of the language, but Thai is very difficult for me and I don’t feel I will ever be able to grasp it unless I enroll in a school. (So, when you come back, let’s do it!)

    As for tackling stories about cultures which are not my own, I like to speak to locals to understand what I am writing about, make sure I am representing it correctly. i am starting a new project on my blog in the next month or so where I will be talking much more about that. I think it is important to make sure that the information I represent is as accurate as possible.

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2014

      And a well-written and thought out comment, D πŸ™‚ Thai classes are a must when I return… would be great to have a study buddy. Loved reading about your experience, thank you.

  • Sushil
    February 13 2014

    Just back from a 2 week trip to Thailand. We were on the Andaman side and were able to strike some quite interesting conversations with the locals. In the old town of Koh Lanta, we had a lovely time speaking to an elderly couple selling refreshments – once they knew we were from India, we had a long exchange on Indian movies – and we were pleasantly surprised when she brought out her stacks of old bollywood CDs (movies of the 70s and 80s!) and curious to learn greeting in Hindi!

    We had quite a few memorable interactions at Koh Ya Noi, Bangkok as well including discussions on the red shirts vs white shirts, foot massages et all!

    One never knows when you strike a conversation!, certainly everyone wouldn’t get chatty, but many locals at the quieter towns / islands were really charming and made our day! πŸ™‚

    I guess its just spontaneous depending on one’s personal comfort with the person across the table. When one make the ‘extra’ effort to ‘chat with the local’ something is lost and the dialogue ends up becoming a tick in the box :), and yes then they know it too πŸ™‚

    Cheers
    Sushil recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2014

      Hey Sushil, I’m glad you had so many rewarding interactions and memorable moments on your trip! I love those little experiences as well. However in this post I guess I was trying to get more at a deeper level of friendship, something that goes beyond a little chat on the road and moves into being a significant part of people’s lives. This obviously is more or less impossible to achieve when just passing through, but I struggled with it even as an expat, and that’s what I was trying to express in this post.

  • Rebecca
    February 20 2014

    Good on you for writing this post – if you were superficial you just would have shrugged it off and said that people didn’t know what they were talking about! πŸ™‚ I completely agree with you about making friends – it is hard. People are living their daily lives and aren’t just going to invite strangers into their homes and lives. I certainly wouldn’t see a stranger in the street of my home country and invite them home for a meal!

    But don’t be afraid to write about history and culture. Sure, there will be people who don’t agree with you, who say you’re wrong (it’s happened to me before), but this is YOUR blog and your interpretations – and that’s what people read this blog for: YOUR perspective.
    Rebecca recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 20 2014

      Thanks Rebecca, I really appreciate those words of encouragement and you are right! I’ve become pretty fascinated with the history of Panama and plan to delve into that a bit further πŸ™‚

  • nouran
    April 7 2014

    hey i would like to ask about the prices in thailand shopping,food,outings and everything if i’m staying there for 7 weeks and also i would like to ask about night clubs

    • Meihoukai
      April 8 2014

      Hey Nouran, in my monthly roundups you can get more details about what I spend on the road! Obviously prices will vary wildly based on your tastes and travel style! πŸ™‚

  • Jason
    June 14 2014

    I’d like to echo Ruann’s comments on your ability to assess, ponder, and respond to criticism in stride. This was a fascinating topic, btw.

    By happenstance (well, I’m a diver who has spent time in Thailand), I have been to Koh Tao. I can easily see why you didn’t make a lot of local friends there. And learning Thai (or any tonal language) is very difficult for native speakers of non-tonal languages who do not have a great memory and pitch perfect tendencies!! I’ve tried my hand at it and been laughed at uproariously for saying something other than what I think I’m saying because attempt at “aaa” sounds like “aea.” The inverse is also true, and native speakers of non-tonal languages who have a good command on English, German, Spanish, French, or Hindi, even when you are not busy working so much you feel like you are hardly able to explore a place you are visiting.

    Personally, I have only been befriended by a handful of locals in places where I have neither Couchsurfed nor lived for a period of time longer than three or four months (and for those who imagine that Couchsurfing always leads to local immersion, it can actually be quite difficult to find local hosts in many places–including Thailand and most of Southeast Asia, really–at least in 2010, when I Couchsurfed in Vietnam, Malaysian Borneo, Cambodia, and Indonesia and stayed with English teachers, foreign students, and expat hosts from England, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and the States because I could not find locals who had couch space available; finding locals to meet up for a cup of coffee and show you their favorite places is easier), probably due to a mixture of cultural and overarching socioeconomic differences. I have also perceived friendliness when you-look-like-an-ATM-and-I’m-going-to-make-my-shark-smile-appear-genuine-to-see-what-I-can-get-from-you-after-I-spend-the-day-showing-you-around was lurking under the that friendly mask a number of times and been so disappointed (while feeling like I totally understand why this mentality exits) that I’ve wondered if it is even worth giving a local stranger the benefit of the doubt from time to time or if I should always draw the line at a cup of free tea before explaining that I need to go work (another challenge in many places I’ve traveled and lived in!)

    The world is full of beautiful people and I have encountered boundless hospitality that makes me want to cry more than a few times on my travels, but for every local in a place who actually has the time and desire to help a traveler get to know his or her village, town, or city, there is another person or two who has ulterior motives that range from harmless desperation or greed to offensively selfish, seedy, or malicious.

    Traveling abroad can be about getting to know locals, their culture, their history, and their favorite haunts, but it can also be about appreciating foods, landscapes, fashions, and street scenes that are new or foreign to you (or about whatever you want it to be, really). I haven’t read through enough of your blog to comment on your general experience with locals, but I know that–at least for myself and others I know–it takes time and effort to try to make good local connections and, especially when you are working and have limited time for exploring and seeing and doing things you have wanted to do in a place you are visiting or living because you can and want to do and see them while you are there, time and effort that may be rewarding but may also not be rewarding and could potentially lead to trouble.

    • Meihoukai
      June 15 2014

      Hey Jason, thanks so much for sharing your story and insights on this! It’s especially nice to hear from another person who has experience on Koh Tao as I think it’s a particularly strange little bubble of the world. Oh, and one interesting tidbit — the reason you couldn’t find local hosts in Vietnam on Couchsurfing is because legally they aren’t allowed to! You need a special permit to host foreigners in your home and doing so without one could lead to fines or worse. Pretty interesting, right?

  • Joshua
    August 31 2014

    I’d have to agree that it is indeed hard to make local friends unless you’re staying in the same place for say a month or so. I admit that almost all of the friends I made were fellow travelers as well. It’s just so hard to make REAL local friends if you’re gone the next week or next few days. It helps that you speak the same language or fluent in one like English to have a good conversation going. Sometimes it’s also a cultural thing, you have the same background which makes relating to each other so much easier. I’m a Filipino and have a good handle of English compared to most of the Asian travelers I meet. For me, it was just easier to make friends with the English-speaking dudes and ladies than the fellow Asians who weren’t very fluent in English, conversations tend to be deeper and jokes don’t get lost in translation as much. I think that’s also why Asian travelers hang out with fellow Asian travelers and Westerners hang out with each other more, it’s a language and cultural thing, but that’s just my opinion.

    • Meihoukai
      August 31 2014

      I agree that humor is a big part of it. It’s hard to reach that level of proficiency in another language, but laughter is so bonding! I found that most Filipinos I met spoke great English — the hospitality and conversation was something I really enjoyed about traveling The Philippines!

  • Marni
    October 20 2014

    I think in terms of befriending locals, it really depends on where in the world you are visiting and also what country you are from. Being in Canada was an extra bonus when I went to Italy on a school trip in 2006. The locals were not overly warm until they discovered we were from Canada and not – as they had assumed – the US. Following that people would go out of their way to be friendly to us, with the exception of the group of students from Texas who were traveling with us. Even with those who were nice to us, I never made any lasting relationships.

    When I was in South Africa just this past June, the locals were all exceptionally warm and welcoming to us (a few tried to get some of the girls to marry their sons), and were very patient with us as we attempted to speak their language. The group I was with offered a handful of Zulu lessons, which I participated in, and though the locals all spoke English relatively well and though I’m sure our pronunciation was cringe-worthy at times, they seemed to appreciate the effort. We all seemed to really connect with the locals we interacted with for a few days at a time, specifically our drivers with whom we developed inside jokes. Even with all of that, it was only the local bartender in the hostel we stayed at who I connected with once back home.

    I think all you can really do – all anyone can really do – is strive to have little moments with locals, and whether they turn into lasting friendships or not people just need to give their best effort towards being friendly and open. I think you’re doing a fine job at connecting with people!

    • Meihoukai
      October 22 2014

      As an American it makes me sad to hear my fellow countrymen were dismissed out of hand πŸ™ But such is life. It sounds like you have a great perspective on this and I agree, we need to be grateful for those meaningful moments of connection when they come around, regardless of how fleeting.

  • Amanda
    December 17 2014

    I appreciate your response to criticism, however the photo you posted referencing “this all-white business” only underscores the concerns of those who have criticized you. The photo is of all white women, heck, four out of the five are Aryan. Is it your understanding that these people are not white? Out of curiosity, what would be your racial assessment? Your statements suggest that “white people” only pertains to people from the U.S. and you seem to conflate race and nationality with no second though. It borders on shocking to find this level of cultural unawareness in someone so well-travelled. For a person of color like myself, it’s even a little disheartening, because if a white person who has been to as many places as you have STILL has such a limited understanding of race, what chance is there for the rest? The fact that you choose a photo of yourself and four other white women in an attempt to prove your open-mindedness illuminates the issue to an almost comic effect, because you EARNESTLY believe the photo demonstrates your point (it demonstrates the opposite).
    The fact that every romantic relationship you have detailed on this blog is with another blonde-haired blue-eyed white person does very little to help your case. As well-scripted and intended as your words are, your photos and actions speak more loudly still. Your ‘preferences’ say even more.
    I enjoy your blog, but I got always got the impression that you seemed to congregate with people who look like you no matter what continent you are on and that makes me skeptical. It would serve us all to get out of our cultural comfort zones, in addition to geographic ones. This includes not just you but also the unfriendly folks we all come across in travel. But as long as you continue to believe that a photo of you and four white women demonstrates your racial impartiality, actual colored folks will most likely not be friendly.

    • Meihoukai
      December 18 2014

      Hey Amanda! My point in posting that photo was not to imply that I think those people are not white — πŸ™‚ — it was to show that I think there can be other kinds of diversity. Because yes, those are four friends of mine who are all white — but we also all grew up in five different countries, with different languages and cultures, and I’ve learned so much from my friendships with them. I assure you that I understand the different between race and nationality. However if that didn’t come across, that is my failing as a blogger.

      As for my romantic relationships, well… I don’t really know what to say about that. I can assure you I’ve crushed on men of many racial backgrounds (and I hope grandma isn’t reading this, because she doesn’t need to think about me crushing on anybody). But it takes two people and a billion intangible factors to create a meaningful relationship, and so I kind of feel lucky that it happens with anybody, you know? I guess I don’t really know how to respond to that. Appreciate you engaging, though.

      • Amanda
        December 18 2014

        Thank you for your response Meihoukai. Your thoughtfulness and willingness to take on certain subjects so candidly is what keeps me coming back to your blog. I think part of me was bummed just because because I enjoy reading your posts so much and you seem like such a fun chick, and not seeing many people of color amongst your photos of friends made me feel… excluded maybe? You are right that meaningful relationships depend on an infinite number of factors. I do think we often deny the relevance of factors like race when it comes to our personal lives (most of us genuinely like to think of ourselves as p.c., as least I hope!). We preach color blindness, yet still largely self segregate (myself included- I am half black, half white, and most of my friends black or brown and look like me). I like to believe I am open-minded and fair, and that race isn’t a factor because it certainly shouldn’t be. My history of friendships, however, indicate that I am clearly more comfortable with people who look like me and to combat this I force myself to actively reach out to (white) people with whom I admittedly feel less welcomed (yes, despite my mother being white). You don’t owe anyone anything, of course, and I love that you don’t apologize for yourself unnecessarily. I suppose the lack of diversity amongst your friends just stings a little. The fact the you took the time to respond makes it sting a lot less though, so thank you, again. The only response I may hope for is that we all look at ourselves just a little more critically. You do a great job of that and I really admire that quality in you.

        • Meihoukai
          December 19 2014

          Hey Amanda, I love that you live your life trying to push yourself out of your comfort zone, especially in an area as complicated as this one. This conversation has really made me think, and inspired me to try to the same more in my own life. And man, that’s why I love blogging!

  • Aria S.
    May 11 2015

    When I studied abroad, even sitting in the same classes as locals, I found it hard to make friends because it’s just..awkward to be like HOLA LET’S BE FRIENDS. At other times, I found it much easier, but like you said, as a girl, you have to weary just giving your number out and meeting them at a bar.

    In my travels, I have however found that a lot of people (myself included) go to a destination and meet tons of people at the hostel and find that having a Brazilian friend while you party in Germany is the equivalent to being worldly. Is it though? Isn’t going meeting Germans what you’re there for, not meeting other travelers? I have found that those conversations with other travelers is just about where/why/how long, some joking around, some partying, but is it really taking advantage of that destination? What’s the difference then between meeting a group of Brazilians in a German hostel and a Thai hostel? Just some thoughts that I have!

    • Meihoukai
      May 16 2015

      I definitely have had the same thoughts run through my head, but at the same time, I go out into the world to meet… people. Can’t always be picky about where they come from πŸ™‚ I have no true Thai friends, but I have best, close, lifelong friends that I’ve met there from countries I’ve never been to and may never get the chance to visit. No complaints there!

  • Emily
    November 13 2015

    I know I’m commenting on a bit of an older post right now – let’s just say I’m on an Meihoukai in Wanderland binge and somehow ended up here! But I had to say – this post SO resonated with me, as did a lot of the comments on it.

    I’m not a full time traveler – my fiance and I are expats living in Singapore and traveling throughout Asia in short spurts. To be embarrassingly honest, we haven’t made any friends other than those through our jobs or through previous connections! And none of those are locals. I think it comes down to a variety of factors. Singapore is such a transient place. Even though we’re in one place, it’s only for 6 months, and tons of people in Singapore are in that same situation – just here for the short term. Also, since we live together, travel everywhere as a duo, and on our travels tend to stay in guesthouses with private rooms instead of hostel dorms, we end up sticking together as a twosome rather than branching out.

    Just wanted to throw my experience out there πŸ™‚ thanks for a great post, as usual!!

    • Meihoukai
      November 15 2015

      Ha ha, binge away! I feel you a lot of these factors — transient communities, a stay with an expiration date, you name it. I think everyone makes friends and bonds and carries out their travels differently. And there’s no right or wrong way. Enjoy your time in Singapore!

  • Charly
    July 28 2016

    Hi Meihoukai! I just want to say I’ve followed you’re blog for a long while now and I always seek it out for advice and inspiration, I think it’s brilliant!

    I’m currently travelling through Flores, Indonesia where I am finding less and less tourists as I go. As I step further away from the backpacker crowd it reminded me of this post from a while back! I think because as I travel inland solo, I find many Indonesians who invite me on trips, invite me to dinner and look to have conversations with me where they can both practise English and teach me more about Indonesian culture. As a result I think the thing I have gained most from this trip, as well as the great views and activities, is to gather the perspective of different Indonesian religious and cultural groups, and kind of get an idea about how they see themselves within such a diverse country. That’s definitely given me a sense of perspective! However, I think this might be quite specific to Indonesia? I can’t speak for other SE Asian countries- I would imagine it is a lot harder in Thailand.

    Not quite sure where I’m going with this, but since I love your perspective on things, I guess I thought I’d share my personal experience, that when I’m in more developed areas I seek out other traveller to have like minded conversations with and do similar things. Then when I find myself somewhere more untouched I need to throw myself into getting to know the locals, and picking up parts of the language.

    I think there’s something to be gained from both, I really think there’s no right way to travel (actually the only wrong way to travel is with a sense of judgement!)

    So keep doing what you’re doing, it’s awesome! And I really hope one day you get to explore eastern Indonesian and you can let me know what you think! πŸ™‚

    Charly xxx

    • Meihoukai
      July 29 2016

      Sounds like you are having an amazing experience! And yes — I totally agree with you on those two different kind of trips. The more undeveloped the area, definitely the easier it is to have genuine interactions with locals! (I do think it’s possible in Thailand too… just probably a little harder to find!) And of course there are so many cultural elements at play, too. I have found it SO much easier to develop real relationships with my peers in Latin America than I have in Southeast Asia. It’s a really complex issue!

      I hope I get to Eastern Indonesia too!

      • Charlie
        August 7 2016

        By the way, I just visited Komodo national park and dived Batu Bolong – the best dive I’ve ever done without a doubt! Absolutely incredible, be sure to add it to your list πŸ™‚ x

        • Meihoukai
          August 8 2016

          Done! I’ve been dying to get to Komodo for a while now…