Travel, and What it Can’t Erase.



None of us like to admit it. Especially those of us who deem ourselves “travelers.” We fly (train, boat, walk, run) around the world waxing lyrical about how beautiful other cultures are, and how we’ve all been changed. And I think this is especially true of young American travelers. We want desperately to remove ourselves from the stereotype of the “Ugly American Tourist.” We admonish the seriously out of whack ideals of American culture that tells us money and a successful career determine your self-worth. We hate commercialism, we are so above that. But if travel, and in particular living in Europe has forced me to realize anything, it’s that for better or worse, I am (we are) absolute products of our culture. I know, it’s almost too obvious, but for those of us who look at much American culture and grimace, it’s hard to admit that it is indeed, deeply engrained in our being. The good, and the ugly. Not to say we can’t change, I know I have. But there it is, constantly in the back of our beings, shaping decisions and perceptions. 

I sometimes feel like an impostor, in this strange life I’ve made. Partly because it’s not remotely anything like what I expected-which is true of most people’s lives. But also because, despite gallivanting about the world, the small town girl in me still rises up and asks me “who are you to live this life?” When I went away to college, I felt for the first time in my life, completely out-of-place. It was a small, private liberal arts school that prided itself on high acceptance rates to medical schools. It was academically challenging, extremely liberal, and very, as other students called it “white bread.” I had an academic scholarship that would have paid for a state-school education, but just made a dent in my private school tuition. I was lucky, my parents had planned for me. But we weren’t wealthy, and much of my new cohort of classmates came from a world I didn’t understand. A world of Amexs and BMWs.  On my first day, when I met my roommate, she was decked out in Burberry. My heart sank, how was I supposed to exist here? I felt like a fraud who was about to be found out. I had dressed up that day, I still remember it, because it immediately felt inadequate. Of course, retrospectively none of this mattered, had I taken the time to notice, I would have realized that down the hall were a group of kids trying to bring Seattle grunge back rolling their eyes at my designer clad new roomie. But I was 18, and narrow-sighted. Of course, I eventually made friends with people from various walks of life, but for the most part, people tended to be from a city, and the top 5% (or often, 1%). Amongst my friends, I was the only one from a small town. They were great people, and any teasing of my origin was good willed, but it took a long time to feel like I belonged. I fought, really hard to shake this image. Sometimes, Alex teases me by saying I’m his “small town girl.” Which, to him, a born and breed city kid, is endearing, but to me still stings. Which is absurd, as if small town origins are a bad thing.  If I had been more mature, or perhaps just more self-assured I would have embraced the heck out of my origins, and bridged the gap between the respective two worlds in which I existed. But, instead, I pushed back and threw my type-A personality into redefining who I was. And now, I would say, it worked. I’ve lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and now Europe. I feel like I belong in cities, they are comfortable. But sometimes it still feels like an act.

New York City.

Life in New York City.

Sometimes I think about the lives of some of my high school mates, and while many of them now lead fabulous international lives, several have stayed. They’ve gotten married, and had kids, and never left the Pacific Northwest. There is absolutely, nothing wrong with this, they seem happy-I’m happy for them. But, it feels very much like I snuck away from a life, and am now pretending my way through this new life. When out with girlfriends at a pub in Dublin, a local asked us where we were from. We told him, the US, but we study here. His response was “ah, you’re those posh Americans!” Apparently, Dubliners assume all Americans are bored rich kids who come here to study. What they don’t understand is that getting a master’s degree here, versus the US saved me $100,000 in student loans. No joke. But when he said that, I felt this immediate instinct to explain how that wasn’t me, how I felt so uncomfortable with that assumption. And I felt like I was lying. Because, he was kind of right. While most of my class comes from modest means, I know a lot of Americans/Canadians that are, extremely well off. We’ve surrounded ourselves in a world where what is normal… isn’t. Over spring break, people went to all corners of the world. No one stayed. And while travel in Europe is cheaper over here, it certainly isn’t negligible. A lot of these kids, well, they’re pretty damn posh. And, despite my travel and life experience thus far, I still feel like I don’t belong with them. Like, if I’m not careful, they might find me out. Which is insane. I mean, really, ridiculous. It’s the strangest of left-over insecurities I thought I had overcome. It makes sense. I grew up feeling inadequate. It was my own doing, and it was a far cry from the truth. But I left my hometown feeling like I had something to prove. And even though I’m 26, and feel pretty great about the person I’ve become, those childhood insecurities are tough to ditch.

Mt. Agung, Indonesia: A world away.

Mt. Agung, Indonesia: A world away.

I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. And this is the ultimate in dredging up feelings of inadequacy. Because I believed, embodied, and talked a lot about what success was earlier in my life. I truly believed it had to do with prestige. My parents brought me up to be strong and independent. They wanted me to be able to support myself in the world, to never rely on a man in my life. And this, is fantastic. And while I have no doubt now that I am fully capable of making it in this world by myself, it isn’t in the way I imagined, and it’s hard to get over. You see, I know exactly what I want out of life. I know what I want out of a career, out of my family life, how I want to live my life. My “end goals” are concrete, and confident. But, I still am not sure how exactly to get there. I have these ideas of what I want career wise, but nothing concrete, which makes it extremely difficult to throw myself into something without being 100% confident it’s what I want. Fear of failure has run my existence for a long time. It currently has me at a standstill. And while I don’t believe that success is measured in dollars or hours spent at work, it is really, really hard to shake those ideals. And despite everything I know, like knowing I’m damn lucky I even get to make these decisions,  it all just accumulates to my feeling like I ought to be doing more. I should be crusading for women’s rights! I should be saving the world! I should probably have a fancy title. But my dirty secret is this: I don’t want any of that. I want something simple. I want to own an operate a small bakery/provisions store. I want to do something that helps others. I want to be part of something bigger than myself. I want a family. I want to be a mother, one day. I want my life to have meaning, which is not the same as happiness. Being a mother is meaningful. Giving to others is meaningful. A title, a high income, may be meaningful, but they may not be. And these things may bring happiness, a short-lived feeling, but they don’t assure a meaningful existence. A meaningful life, in fact, often forgoes happiness. Parents, which any study will tell you, are generally far less happy than their kid-free counter parts. But, they feel a far greater sense of meaning. That is what I want, meaning. If I get happiness too, great, but it isn’t my end game. And the pursuit of happiness, as we all know, is the ultimate goal in the “American Dream.” And we’ve all been told to aim our lives at this fleeting emotion.

So I feel like an impostor sometimes. Like, I don’t belong in this world, I should be doing something else. Despite everything I’ve learned about life, and what really matters to me, there’s this small voice in my head that I really think, is holding me back. It tells me, I’m not made for this life I stumbled into, that I haven’t worked hard enough, done enough, to deserve it. I should be keeping my head down, working hard for something tangible that tells me I’ve done enough, am successful enough, happy enough. Something to justify this current life that is more incredible than I ever could have hoped for. It tells me I don’t deserve this insane elation I have. Life is good, maybe too good. It’s hard, often, don’t get me wrong. But the fact is, back in my eighteen year old vision of my life, I couldn’t have dreamt how wonderfully things would work out. And yes, 18-year-old self, everything will work out just fine. Maybe I should follow that advice now. But, how dare I be so lucky, it isn’t what is culturally acceptable. I should have a career I hate by now, after all! And while, figuring out what exactly is my next step has been causing fear and anxiety, a lot of those negative emotions come from the fact that what I want doesn’t fit the mold of what I grew up thinking was what “I was supposed to do.” And no matter how hard I try, it is so difficult to get over. It is simply this, I have been granted every opportunity a person can hope for in life, I do not want to squander it. I want my parents to be proud, and for all their hard work to bring our family to where it is now, to be evident in my “success.” Balancing that self-imposed obligation, and finding something meaningful in life is certainly difficult, and often at odds with one another. I know all I can do is take small steps forward. And to acknowledge that the culturally imposed voice in my head means well, but shouldn’t be running my life.

I am not, as I sometimes think I am, an independent being, free from my cultural impositions of normal. None of us are. Even what I’m doing now, is in part a product of my generation. Most of my friends are fellow American, or Canadian expats just trying to find their way in this rapidly shrinking world too. But instead of fighting it, or wishing that America in general would rid itself of its puritan-based work ethics, and absurd, often grotesque displays of excess and money, I ought to just acknowledge that for better or worse, these ideals are a part of my being. And while I can reject them, and never let them run my life, they will always, in my lifetime be there. And being a product of a culture, isn’t such a terrible thing, it is emblematic of a time and place in human history. All of the ugly, and beautiful. So maybe I don’t know what’s next, but I’m working on it, and slowly silencing that voice that’s thus far been holding me back. As always, it’s a work in progress.


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