In trying to live up to my “live every week like it’s o-week” pledge, I finally introduced myself to my neighbor in my new dorm, Lindjom. Lindjom is a Cameroonian man who appears to be somewhere in his 30s, but beyond that I can’t tell you much. As soon as I asked him what book he was reading, he skipped all formalities of introduction and jumped to explain why he loves to read. Reading, he explained, is a way of entering into dialogue with another, much like having a conversation. By reading, Lindjom is able to learn from the lives of others in order to lead a wiser and more fulfilling life himself.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m sad to say that as a college student I have failed in any efforts to read for pleasure. After trying to get through class readings and maybe the newspaper, I usually lack the motivation to pick up a book on my own. At that point, I usually choose to go play some FIFA, or just hang out.
“I’m really glad you introduced yourself,” Lindjom told me. “It is through traveling and forming relationships with others that we can understand the world and try to solve its problems. Those who don’t travel understand very little and are always close-minded. They can’t tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim.”
To an extent, Lindjom and I are on the same page. Ever since I was lucky enough to take a trip to South Africa in high school, I have done everything I can to travel. Travel irreversibly changes your world, and with every trip I’ve learned a lot about the cultures, politics and lifestyles of other peoples. And I’ve learned a lot about myself.
Spring of freshman year I took a class called “Foreign Policy of the United States” taught by Professor Peter Feaver. In addition to the assigned course readings, we had to read internationally focused articles of The New York Times every day, on which we were quizzed weekly. I learned more that semester from reading the newspaper than I did from any other course readings. I delighted in suddenly being able to discuss current events with a pretty decent understanding of what was going on. It was around that time that I decided I wanted to be a diplomat and dedicate myself to international affairs.
With time, however, my commitment to the international sphere faded. Rushing to read The New York Times everyday so that I could keep up with the next story of a bombing overseas and then discuss its implications with other IR enthusiasts gradually lost appeal. It felt like I was trying to keep up with a TV show. All of these events that seemed so important and serious to me only existed in two dimensions: the computer screen, or TV screen, and the conversations between myself and others who didn’t actually know any of the individuals affected.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to discredit anyone who is interested in international relations. I, too, love to travel and talk about what’s going on in the world. For me, I have looked to travel to bridge that gap between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. Those places from the TV screen finally come to life and those “people” in the streets finally get a name.
Ultimately, though, the most meaningful part of my travels has always been the way in which it brings me to reflect on my own home and my own life. When abroad, I have found that we are often more willing to confront social injustices, questionable traditions and other local idiosyncrasies. Having little to no implication in the workings of these foreign places, we feel more at ease calling for change that won’t necessarily affect or incriminate us. It’s this quality of travel that makes it special; it makes us curious, observant and thoughtful. We take the time to seriously reflect on the setup of the community at hand and consider ways in which it could be improved.
And so, though I do agree with Lindjom that traveling and seeing the world is an incredible experience, I think what’s truly important about travel is the way in which it inspires us. Maybe this is just a revelation inspired by occasional homesickness, but I don’t think that travel is the only way to open up to new worlds. There is an unavoidable newness of traveling that gives us energy and excitement, and inspires curiosity. Ultimately though, if we are able to recognize the newness that surrounds us in the very neighborhoods where we live, we should find ourselves with those same feelings. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do. There’s definitely a part of us that wants to look the other way and ignore someone asking for money on the side of the road on the way to school. But even though it’s hard, I’m reminded of the fact that so many of us young people travel with the hope of “seeing and changing the world,” and I can’t help but think of my dad’s old saying: Charity starts at home.
Philip Doerr is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Paris, France. His column runs every other Thursday.