Throughout SE Asia, I probably heard the line a million times.
“Same same, but different.”
Whether it was someone trying to talk me into their restaurant or sell me “real” designer underwear at the market, the line became the English chorus in the teeming cacophony of mopeds, firecrackers and horns.
The most rewarding part of travel isn’t the places seen or the people met, it is the internal effect that it has on one’s viewpoints. It is looking at anything, old or new, and looking at it not as what you projected it to be, but as something closer to what it actually is.
I find that since getting home, I’m looking at many things that I took as routine parts of the landscape differently. The sound of walnuts and acorns rustling through limbs and dry leaves as they careen toward the ground had escaped my attention for 26 years, now it seems to be all I hear on my morning run. Perfectly spaced rows of drying corn suddenly possess a noble beauty that I had never appreciated.
Then there are the things that never bothered me, but now seem strangely absurd. Walking into a restaurant, and seeing the only healthy option to be a cheese, dressing and bacon covered “salad” is shocking after 6 months of eating little more than sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for a light meal.
The huge amount of trash that Americans generate on a daily basis, largely on the basis of overpacking everything, seems ludicrous. For instance, I bought a 2.5 inch long USB jump drive, and found myself bringing home an 8 inch by 12 inch plastic package, complete with a cardboard insert of nearly the same dimensions. All in the name of stopping shoplifters I suppose.
Also my relationship with the media has changed drastically. After a long hiatus from American news sources, I am continually shocked by the two pillars of American cable news.
Fear and consumption.
I challenge anyone to watch a news program with a discerning eye and find content that isn’t predicated on one (or both) of those pillars. From the comically fearmongering coverage of the Dallas Ebola patient, to the shamelessly consistent product placement (celebrities included) that passes as “news”, the American news media has largely ceased to serve any meaningful function within the democracy.
While traveling, I watched Anchorman 2. I loved Anchorman, but I thought that the sequel was merely a poor exercise in fill-in-the-blank jokes from the first film. However, I was intrigued by the satire of the cable news industry throughout, a point running behind the story line. Ron Burgundy becomes a late night news anchor on a 24 hour news station started by a fictional Richard Branson. After making an absurd bet that he’d beat the primetime ratings of a rival, he begins to run anything that people will watch from live police chases to cat specials, etc. His estranged wife Veronica has her once-in-a-career interview with Palestinian Yasser Arafat bumped off air by Ron’s coverage and commentary of a meaningless police chase.
In all of Ron’s blunders, he realized a fundamental truth. Viewers demand that their news be entertaining instead of informative. As I look at the state of our media now, nothing could be more obvious. Anyone able to string 6 misspelled inflammatory words together on a Twitter account can be a part of the broadcast.
We sacrificed insight for soundbites.
I decried in an earlier post the Donald Sterling debacle as being all about the wrong things, his team shouldn’t have been taken away for racist diatribes in a private phone call, it should’ve been taken away in 2003-2006 when he was being sued by tenants and the Justice Department alike for systemically racist leasing policies.
The difference was that generating outrage in the 2003-2006 period would’ve taken actual journalism, whereas a 10 second soundbite with that most dreaded of racial epithets generated more outrage than 100 well-researched articles would have.
There are countless things one learns during real travel, both about yourself and the world. The most impactful lesson will always be the learned ability to look at something for what it is, as opposed to through the societal glasses you’ve always worn.