Monday, February 24, 2014
A relative of mine recently asked me why I am so fascinated with Asia. My response was that I had no particular interest - all of my life really - until meeting some Uzbeks at Samford University. And from there, my uncle organized and financed a trip to Central Asia, where we got to spend quality time with Uzbek families, eating their delicious food, seeing their towns and cities and landmarks, and truly just being at their mercy. That then led to spending almost a year in Uzbekistan, which was bound to influence me. And it did! I took a little side trip - funny that I'd call it that! - to India, a place that literally blew my mind. Stunning, disgusting, magnificent, colorful, shocking, crowded, polluted, ancient...all those things. Sensory overload, and I went there knowing so little - a paltry amount, in fact. The Jungle Book was all I associated with India!!!! Well, I also had some knowledge of Mahatma Gandhi that I picked up after college! Traveling and looking closely at other cultures and truly delving into world history were just not priorities growing up. We were into football, Jesus and bass fishing. (I have to say, though, for me, it was my love for Jesus and his teachings that initially fueled my interest in the world outside Alabama!)
My stint in Uzbekistan, combined with the trip to India, plus the year-ending train journey down through Eastern Europe, made me want to know more, or at least planted a seed that there was more to this world - way more! I then started reading about the Russian empire's expansion into Central Asia and how the Czar's army and early Slavic settlers and explorers also pushed across Siberia, "civilizing" and conquering the natives. It reminded me truly of the my own country's Manifest Destiny, and how our settlers and early immigrants moved in waves out west, searching for land, jobs and treasure.
Then, in 2000, when I left the bank (the hardest decision of my life, I might add), I started thinking of traveling again. I had a contact in Japan (a missionary from Dothan), and so Japan appeared on my radar. I bought a backpack, a guide book and made plans to fly to Tokyo. I didn't intend to stay super long. In fact, I had sat in on a law school class at the University of Alabama and had taken the LSAT, thinking that that could be in my future. Also, just a few months prior, I had visited the graduate school of business at the University of Oregon, and had even talked in person with the dean about enrolling there. Yes, in Eugene, Oregon! So, when I flew to Japan, I had some good prospects back home, and only thought I would travel a month, maybe two. I knew so, so little about Japan, but was longing to "hit the road." I had watched the movies Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet's Society - more than a few times! - and the messages I got from those movies inspire me to this day.
Once I got to Japan and met some people - a cousin, some expats and some locals - my interest in seeing more surged! People I met - usually other travelers or expats - would say, "You must go to Hong Kong!" or "Make sure you visit Bangkok." "You haven't experienced traveling - or living! - until you've been to Bali." The $ was very strong back then, and the world was before me, spread out like a buffet, full of possibilities! Within three months, I had the met the woman that would become my wife, and after a full six months of backpacking (well, a few steps above backpacking) through about ten countries, I scrapped everything else, and decided that settling down and teaching English in Bangkok was the thing to do. I was in love, plus I thought Bangkok was simply fascinating, in every sense of the word. And it was! And I knew from talking with others that, if you want to keep traveling, Bangkok is the hub for traveling all throughout Asia - certainly Southeast Asia. In other words, for your money, from the airport to travel agencies to be airfare rates, Bangkok was tops. Of course, I wanted to travel more - and I did. And yet, looking back on those years, I was so green. The thing, though, that kept me going was curiosity. I had it then, and luckily I have it now. Curiosity is as important as having funds and time to travel. I think curiosity is more important, honestly, especially if you're into being foreign for an extended length of time.
To get to the heart of my relative's question, it's always been clear to me that Asia is not the only region that holds my interest. In fact, I have traveled to more European countries than Asian ones! I love Europe, and could have settled in Eastern Europe and taught English as easily as I did in Asia. I could have even fallen for an Estonian gal! Still, though, Asia is indeed a special place to me. My wife is obviously from there. The food is extraordinary. The history is rich and ancient. And there's a certain mystery that captivates me. I love the ordinary - don't get me wrong - and deeply appreciate my culture, traditions and people......but I am one of those who love to roam around and see new things. The more different the better. And yet that statement is so simple and naïve. I know that so well. In reality - and this is going to sound trite - there are far more similarities than differences among the world's people and cultures. One example: The Northeast of Thailand, from its traditions to its social mores to religious devotion to food culture to sense of family to its backwardness (vis-à-vis central Thailand and Bangkok) to its lack of sophistication, is so much like my own home region in Southeast Alabama. And people there, like in my region, are fiercely proud, traditional, independent, a little too self-conscious, big-hearted, less-educated, carefree, the butt of the nation's jokes, more religious and very hospitable. It's finding these similarities that makes traveling really, really fascinating.
Oddly enough, in many respects, after traveling extensively I became more of an Alabamian and more of an "expert" on my hometown and family. In fact, as I told my dear mother, who was always so open to hearing about my experiences (yet she wanted me home!), I didn't truly become an Alabamian or American until I traveled. Being away from it all, and meeting people who asked me questions I had not even thought about deeply, really prompted me to start asking questions and learning more about myself and my place of birth. I may have lost some of my accent and lots of my religion (Thank god!), but the good parts of my background I can share easily and the troubling parts are parts I can now deal with straight up, without having to hide behind sports and religion (yes, again!).