Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Why Question: Reflections from Kuching

I’ve been getting the “why” question a lot from fellow travelers. When I tell them that I am on the road for six months, the first word is another w-word: wow. Then it is always followed by “why” in one form or another:
“What made you decide to do this?”
“What’s the purpose of your trip?”
“Why so long?” “Why Asia?” “Why now?”
Of all the conversations I was prepared to have, this wasn’t one of them. Although they start off seeming merely curious, I don’t feel like justifying my decisions to anyone. I'm here because I want to be here. I have dreamed of traveling around the world my whole life, and I  finally have the time, money, and energy to do it. I'm in between jobs at a turning point in my career, and I’ve been saving money for this trip since I was nineteen. I'm in Asia because I think this is the most fascinating region of the world. It’s at the top of my bucket list. There are places I want to see, things I want to do, and food I want to eat here. Being overseas, gleaning experience and knowledge from other people and my surroundings is a fundamental part of my identity. I am my experiences. I am interesting because I do interesting things.
This is who I am.

If judgment was absent from their initial question, it begins to show after I give my response. Somehow, everything I’ve said isn’t enough. They want to hear a specific purpose. An action-plan with measurable goals and a purpose. “I'm a mountain climber and my goal is to climb every mountain in this region” or “I own a restaurant and came here to sample local cuisine in order to revamp our menu.” They want me to explain myself with a label. “I'm a photographer…” “I'm a volunteer…”
When I can’t answer so simply they seem genuinely concerned. They look like they don’t know how to handle me. I worry them. Like I'm freefalling through space and my inability to condense my identity into one acceptable title spells my doom.

I expected this attitude from folks back home, the 9 to 5 working crew. I expected this  attitude from people who have never left the U.S., and from people who never use their vacation days. I did not expect this attitude from other travelers, whom I would meet on dusty roads in Bali and in dense jungles in Borneo. I did not expect this from people who are more well-traveled than I, older than I, wiser than I.

But here I am. The question comes up in every dreaded conversation, and the attitude, however masked by kindness it may be, is visible. I shrug it off. I laugh. I end the conversation. I keep going. I don’t need their approval to do what I'm doing, but it weighs on my mind. I was hoping that by traveling I would escape the social pressures to conform. I was hoping I would meet other non-conformists. But at barely a month into my trip, that has yet to happen. 

-Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Kuching, Malaysia

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