Right now, I’m preparing to take 23 Douglass College students to study in Southeast Asia in January, as part of a living-learning community called the East Asian House in the Global Village. At the first trip orientation meeting, the students were excited and curious about the trip, asking questions ranging from “What should I wear?” to “How important is knowing the language?” to “ What if I make a mistake on the ground ?”
I realized that, while I spend a lot of time dishing out travel advice, it’s easy to lose sight of how I became a savvy traveler : making mistakes and learning things the hard way. In fact, many times throughout my travels, I’ve left a situation blushing, paying some extra cash, or quickly fleeing the scene.
I want to assure my students (and all new travelers) that those mistakes are OK—they’re inevitable, actually. But keep in mind some of the missteps I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned, and you’ll be much more prepared than I was at first to diffuse a tense situation , bounce back from a cultural faux pas, or make a smooth recovery.
Being Different is OK
Most places I go, I usually stand out as a blonde giant. There were times when I thought it was fun, but after living in a place for a few months , I usually got tired of having everyone comment on my appearance, size, shape, skin tone, or how well I could wear local clothes.
Once, in India, after being followed by curious onlookers for an hour, I felt completely defeated and tired of all the stares. I just wanted to be invisible. I was sitting at a chai shop with my head in my hands when a local auntie came up to me and said, “Walk strong. Be strong, like an Indian woman. Your life is not sad. You have a happy life."
At first I didn't know what she meant, but then I watched the women walking by. They all walked with power and force. No matter their background, they carried themselves with great dignity. From then on, I walked with my chin up, and my eyes set on my destination , with my dupatta (scarf) flowing in the breeze. I’ve never again flinched at another comment about how different I look. Wherever I go, I walk with confidence and a smile.
You Don’t Know Their Story Until You Listen
In Korea, I would often get meals from a Sri Lankan restaurant and just assumed the staff were migrant workers searching for a better life. It wasn't until I talked to the owner that I learned they had all competed in the 1988 Olympics, and then decided to stay on in Korea to escape the Sri Lankan conflict. The owner was an engineer, and his wife a doctor, but they couldn’t find work in their fields in Korea.
I have many of these stories, and they always remind me that you can never judge someone by his or her appearance, profession, or geographic place. Before thinking that you know anything about someone, you have to talk to people and listen to their stories. (For a humorous look at this lesson, watch Maz Jobrani’s TEDTalk, “ Did you hear the one about the Iranian-American? ” or watch this performer on Thailand’s Got Talent blow away the crowd’s initial assumptions.)
Always Say Yes to Food (But Do Speak Up When It’s Too Much)
Yes, it sounds gluttonous, but I once ate 14 (small) dosas in one sitting. My host family just kept refilling my plate. Even when I did turn down another helping, I ended up with more—so I kept eating and smiling to be polite. After downing some serious Zantac, I decided I needed to rethink my plan.
Eating a lot and showing you like the food is considered a great compliment to the chef. But you can definitely overdo it , so it’s important to learn how to be insistent when you hit your limit (without being rude). To decline food without offending anyone, you can put your hand over your stomach to signify being full and say, “That was so delicious, but I am saving room for later," or you can eat very slowly so as not to clean your plate (which suggests you want more).
On the other hand, I've been in communities where there isn't much to spare but they are so happy you are there, they want to share something with you. In that situation, graciously accept a small portion, and never take more than you need to ensure that everyone has more than enough. (If you’re curious about other food-related etiquette tips, check out an older article I dedicated to the topic .)
My first time in Korea, I brought a carton of honey as a gift for my hosts, not realizing the advice I got to bring honey was outdated. (It turned out to be from the 1970s when Korea was economically struggling.) But, even if not everyone understood the gesture, they still appreciated the sentiment.
While you’re traveling, it’s important to find your own way to give thanks to your hosts. That could mean selecting traditional gifts, preparing a meal, or simply sharing your story with those who ask. Handwritten notes with a small memory or a framed picture are some of my favorite ways to say thanks and celebrate the good times I've shared with friends abroad.
Laugh at Yourself
In Vietnam, I once jumped off the back of a public van at my stop—and sank into freshly poured cement. As all the road workers watched, I looked down in horror. Would I have to pay for the damage? Would I go to jail?
I can't believe how ridiculous I looked , stuck in cement. I apologized profusely and the workers just laughed, came over to take pictures with me, and repaved the sidewalk in two minutes. While I was shaken up, it gave them a great story to tell about a silly foreigner, and broke up the monotony of the day.
I have done a lot of silly things abroad, everything from eating inedible things to make people feel comfortable, to doing silly dances, to just making fun of myself for the way I speak the local language. But these times—when I’ve done something really ridiculous and laughed about it—are the times I've made the best friends and gotten the greatest stories to retell.
As a first-time traveler, you're bound to make mistakes, and that’s okay. I always look forward to the learning, growth, and understanding that happens when we mess up and then make it right again.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Jesionka.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author