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The Biases of a Traveler

Hanoi, Vietnam.

Think of your sensory inputs right now. You can see almost 180 degrees from left to right and from top to bottom. You can hear in two ears at once and have a few square meters of skin that report to your brain on texture, temperture, humidity and airflow. Are you cold? Are you sweating? Are your belt or shoes too tight?

Your nose, if it works properly, is pulling hundreds of scents from the air and trying to figure out what they are. Is that smell chocolate? A cup of coffee? A diesel truck driving by?

The senses don’t stop at the outside of your body. Past injuries still hurt and send signals to your brain: a torn muscle, a slipped disk and arthritis in your joints feed your brain information all the time. This is a constant flow of pain and it is easy to ignore — but tune into it and it still hurts. If you concentrate you can even feel your heart beating against your chest.

The senses don’t stop at the physical body. Imagine you’re sitting in a coffee shop. A friend sits down next to you and is unexpectedly wearing the same cut and color of Converse that your friend Sarah wore in highschool. Without wanting it your brain starts to drill into past memories with Sarah: the wind blowing on your face in a car with the sunroof down, scraping your knee climbing trees together in Golden Gate Park, clammy palms and the smell of mold as you snuck into a cheap movie theatre together.

Information is coming to our brain from physical senses and mixing with past memories and experience. The senses flow so quickly that it’s impossible to give each our full attention, our subconcious selects the bits that we can handle and presents them to our mind, our mind triggers a memory of a past experience and paints on top of what is happening right now with the ghosts of past sights, smells and thoughts.

As sit in a coffee shop in Vietnam writing this even a glimpse of a coffee cup from the corner of my eye brings to mind the taste of coffee and the feeling of a warm mug. For the instant those thoughts exist they feel entirely real, more real than what I feel with my two real hands or taste in my actual mouth.

My eyes don’t actually see that much, my ears don’t actually hear that much, but my brain is processing what they sense and painting all over it according to my past. That’s the lens through which I see the world.

So what are the biases of a traveler?

It’s not just that people in foreign countries speak limited English, it’s that their English skills only allow them to express basic thoughts. Over time this can wear me into thinking that foreign people aren’t intelligent. That’s bullshit, in their native language foreigners are having the same complicated conversations you and I have at home and are making the same complicated jokes.

I don’t read the news when traveling and I don’t pass friends in the office, so I don’t hear about TV shows and local fiascos. This can make me think that the world has stopped. The world hasn’t stopped, I’ve just tuned it out. Life in abroad isn’t necessarily more “in the moment” or slower than life at home — it’s just easier for us to tune out the distractions.

Interacting with people in the tourist industry can be frustrating, but people in the tourist industry are not representative of a culture. Think about your home country: are your brightest and nicest friends working at hotels and coffee shops? Does poor service represent how all people treat each other or just how service workers treat tourists?

Even being uncomfortable in an environment changes my perception. In Asia I’m often hot and have minor indigestion. I might think everyone in Asia feels like this all the time — they don’t. Home for them probably feels as comfortable as home does for me.

Few currencies are as valuable per unit as the US Dollar, the Euro, or the British Pound. So I sometimes can subconciously think “Our currency goes futher here, our currency is better.” This isn’t true, currency unit values are relics of the past. Most currencies these days are stable and the number of units of a currency from my home country needed to buy something has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of my country.

One of the least visible biases for me is that caucasians are almost universally considered to be richer, smarter, and better looking than other races. As a result as a caucasian traveler I will be more welcomed, treated with less suspicion, and assumed to have more money than other races. Over time this treatment could lead me to think I’m actually richer, smarter, and better looking than other people. I try to be aware of how people in foreign countries treat me and of the impact it could have on my perception of self.

What can I do about travelers bias? I can try to be aware that my own past is constantly altering reality. Another person will have a totally different experience than I will.

Maybe ask these questions:

  1. How does what’s happening to me compare to what happens to a foreigner in my own country?
  2. How does where I am now compare to a similar tourist sight at home?
  3. Are people treating me differently because of my appearance?
  4. What’s the strangest thing in my home country and how would it look to someone from here?
  5. What’s going on around me that I can’t understand becuase I’m not fluent in the language? 1
  6. How is this familiar and how is it foreign? How would I feel if this were totally normal?

The most surprising fact of travel so far is that across countries most things are the same. People sit on chairs, drive cars and motorcycles, use smartphones, use Google and Facebook, and mostly wear western-style clothes. Urban people of the world like the same things: Levis, iPhones and button down shirts.

It’s not even clear that we can call these “western styles” anymore — there is as much Japanese and Chinese influence on the design of an iPhone 5s as there is European influence. It feels more accurate to call the prevailing style and tastes “monied world” tastes. As a traveler it’s so hard to escape the monied middle class world that much of the world feels just like home.

Travel photos try to show pristine views but this is far from reality. Every tourist sight I’ve been to swarms with people and getting a picture without another tourist is the exception rather than the rule.

There are two more travelers biases to mention: The first is that I can pull my ripcord at any minute. The GDP per capita of Vietnam is $1,600/year. At any minute I can pull out a credit card and buy a $3,000 flight to New York City. Locals don’t have this luxury, so they’re much more committed to this life than I can ever be.

The second bias is driven by information. I go where the airports are, where the metro takes me, and where Google recommends. When I travel somewhere and think “this doesn’t look like National Geographic” I remember that the truly local parts of the world, the undeveloped and “authentic” ones, aren’t going to show up on a map.

Locals might like it that way.

  1. One of my favorite activities is to look around a room and try figure out what each person is thinking about. [return]