Five guidebooks, each covered with pictures of golden temples and vivid spices, gave me the same advice: when I go to Southeast Asia and India, I should use the right hand to eat and gesture because the left hand is considered unclean. I do not know what these guidebook writers would have thought of my left-handed cousin, who was born and raised in North India, and always used her left hand even when accepting the offerings of Gods at temples. Her left-handedness was important to her and she was not willing to sacrifice it merely to satisfy the whims of strangers.
We travelers get this type of advice all the time, that is, advice on how to fit in to the community to which we travel. I have been advised to wear black clothing and designer jeans in Italy, to speak exclusively Spanish in Spain, and to dress modestly and avoid speaking with men in Middle Eastern countries. But, though I may try my best to adapt, I will never be mistaken for a local. And, even if the subterfuge of changing my dress, language, and mannerisms would be enough to mark me as a local, do I want to give up my heritage, culture, and predispositions merely because I have crossed borders?
The Problem With Adaptation
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species
The traveler who adapts to foreign customs is most likely to manage the hassles and pressures of travel. Though I was born in Philadelphia, spent most of my life in Alabama, and speak Tamil poorly, my skin color and features instantly define me as a person of Indian-descent, so I wear salwar kameez when I travel in India to avoid being stared at or hassled by the local touts. We adapt not only to avoid the irritations of the foreign nation but also to show respect for the culture and customs of the people upon whose country we descend. At Ayers Rock, when the aborigines asked us not to take pictures of their sacred sites, we complied even though we saw other Westerners pressing their flash buttons.
As with all things, there are people who take adaptability to the extreme. When we were in Ireland in 2003, we met Americans who slapped Canadian stickers on their backpacks, not because they were ashamed of their country but rather because they did not want to be questioned and antagonized about American policies and the Iraq war.
No matter how we adapt, whether simply changing our clothing or deceiving others about our origin and nationality, we lose a bit of our authentic self through the process. Some will argue that these changes are good and by adapting, we become more broad-minded about ourselves and the world around us. I hesitate on that point. Middle Easterners argue that adaptation to Western society is killing their culture and customs, as children are exposed to shocking sexually suggestive lyrics from musicians and nudity on television. In the same way, I wonder why I voluntarily set aside my beliefs in feminism by acceding to the wishes of conservative nations and cover my head, shoulders, and legs while traveling through those nations.
This is the problem of adaptation. Though our attempts to change ourselves may assure our survival in a foreign land, we may not be happy in merely surviving.
The Problem With Authenticity
Then, let us reintroduce the self – like my left-handed cousin who refused to use her right hand at temples, I decide which beliefs are important to me and I place a strangle hold on them, refusing to adjust or alter them despite foreign customs to the contrary.
A good example is my vegetarianism. I was raised vegetarian in a South Indian household and remained vegetarian even when my brother and cousins started eating meat because I did not wish to consciously harm an animal by my actions. Traveling as a vegetarian is undoubtedly a challenge. I lived in Spain for two months, where roast pigs and beef hang from every second storefront, and never tried paella; I spent a month in Australia and ate mostly pastas and French fries; and I have lived my entire life in the United States and never tried a McDonald’s hamburger or a thick cut steak. I refuse to eat meat because vegetarianism is part of my world view though many cultures do not understand that viewpoint.
The extremists, who refuse to adapt at all, do exist as well. This is the stereotypical “obnoxious American traveler” who sees the country through the window of a tour bus and demands McDonalds everywhere, without interest or desire in meeting the citizens whose country they seek to visit. Recently, for example, one couple advised us that when we go to Egypt, we should not step out of our hotel or tour group or try to meet the local people because of the chaos and unsanitary conditions. Even world-renowned traveler Rick Steves may fall into this category with his advice that travelers should abandon learning foreign phrases and instead use “Special English,” by speaking like a “Dick and Jane primer,” while in Europe.
The problem with remaining true to our principles while traveling is that we may sacrifice opportunities. Though Saudi Arabia is incredibly beautiful, I do not plan to travel there because I would be embarrassed and suffocated in a place where I could not enter a restaurant or drive a car because of my gender. I do not criticize the Saudi Arabians for their beliefs but recognize that mine are different and that I do not want to alter my beliefs in feminism just to satisfy my curiosity about their culture and country. Similarly, because I am vegetarian, I miss many important cultural experiences, such as eating fresh caught sushi, Argentinian barbecue, and French foie gras.
The hardest part of travel is finding the balance between authenticity and adaptability. Though I do not eat meat, I eat everything vegetarian, including oddities like sweet potatoes cooked in geothermal steam and durian. We have seen girls wear shorts in India yet immerse themselves in the local culture and cuisine. We have Sikh friends who speak fluent English, eat American food, but wear their beard long and a turban wrapped around their head.
All humans an intrinsic desire to fit in to their surroundings, yet, no matter how much we try to mimic the language, patterns, practices, and customs of another country, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” We bring our customs, our beliefs, and our lives with us when we cross borders and, in doing so, educate others about our own country. The question every traveler faces is which beliefs and habits to give up and which we should hold on.