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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is Your Perception of "Normal" Changed by Travel?

After watching this video, I had to wonder about how traveling affects our perception of what is typical. As an American living in the South, the "most typical person" I saw growing up is not the same as the man in the video, yet I was in no way surprised to see that it was a Chinese person. Being a huge fan of the TV show Firefly, I had a little bit of research already done for me on the concept of what might happen if everyone in the world were to integrate. Plus, the sheer number of people is impossible to ignore. I was surprised, however, to see that the most typical person was a man, since I was under the impression that women outnumbered men on the Earth. Oh well, can't give my mom THAT excuse for no grandchildren anymore...

But my perception of normalcy has been irreversibly changed by travel: I have the unique experience of having lived in a foreign country with a homogeneous phenotype very different from my own. Living in Japan impressed upon me the idea that "normal" is not only a relative concept, but a malleable one. In North Carolina, I was used to seeing a little bit of everything, but a typical person in my immediate sphere was white, black, or Hispanic. Despite the fact that my best friend was Chinese, I still didn't take the Asian phenotype for granted as being "typical". My friend was my friend, and so became more complex and real in presence, while her specific outside all but disappeared on my radar.

I remember stepping off the plane in Japan, and just feeling staggered. I had expected the homogeneous society, but the thing I had not been quite as mentally prepared for was my own sudden lack of anonymity. Yes, I knew I was going to be a foreigner, but I didn't think about how that might affect my perception of myself among the native population. It was strange, to feel that I--who had been so normal in appearance my whole life--was as far from "typical" as I could get.

Over the next few months, that feeling became normal. I was used to people staring, used to people assuming I didn't understand them (even when I did), and used to everyone around me being Japanese. In fact, I got so used to it, that even I started staring at other foreigners! My sense of normal made the shift, and settled.

Three years later, I came home, and boy was that an eye-opener. You hear of Reverse Culture-Shock, and part of that very real concept is the necessity to readjust to the "old normal". Stepping off the plane, I was suddenly invisible amidst the people still living in the North Carolina "typical". People walked by with fast-food soda cups too big to have fit in my Japanese refrigerator, and the trio of workers at Starbucks didn't greet me, but continued their conversation about hating work as they made my white mocha. Had everything always been so much bigger? Had shop staff always been so inconsiderate? I guess they had, but I just hadn't noticed.

I remember sitting by the fire at my parents' house, looking around the strangely-familiar screened-in porch. That lariat hadn't been there, but almost everything was exactly the same. It started to feel like my entire experience in Japan was a dream--everything was almost as I had left it, and I felt my memory of my experiences abroad slipping away, like the elusive tail of a dream. I always thought of deracination as a feeling experienced away from one's native country, but here I was, at home, feeling like my roots wouldn't quite take hold in the soil after being pulled out.

I realized that it was impossible to accept that old sense of what was normal. I couldn't re-embrace all the things I had taken for granted before, especially since it had been so hard to force myself to let go in the first place. Instead, I started looking for new things to embrace: new challenges, new adventures--a new sense of "normal". Or maybe, I learned to reject the thought that there was even a "normal" at all.

Have your perceptions of what is "normal" been changed by traveling? How, and what happened after your perception changed?

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