I am always surprised by how much larger places are than I imagine. With every arrival to a new country, my imagination collides head-on with the realities of the world as my flight descends toward a new airport. Every single time, I am overwhelmed with the first glance out of the plane window of my destination below — overwhelmed by the seemingly endless cities, the sheer magnitude of land and the countless number of invisible people, all carrying on with their lives oblivious to yet another tourist who is about to desperately attempt to “understand” their country and culture.

And I am overwhelmed because our imaginations are selfish, they never prepare us for how much more diverse and massive the world really is. Our imaginations are constricted to storylines and creations related solely to ourselves, and as an American tourist, that means deceiving us into believing the world is small, filled with few people who matter, and that foreign countries are simply playgrounds that will adhere to our schedules and are meant to be explored with our U.S. passports and Canon cameras.

Yet this is never the reality I have experienced abroad. Instead of the false narratives pictured in my imagination of a smaller world that is easy to explore and discover, I am immediately humbled by both the size and complexity with my arrival somewhere new.

With every country, whether it be the island of Iceland located near the Arctic Circle, or Spain on the warm Mediterranean Sea — the world and its people immediately become materialized and brought to life, overwhelming my self-absorbed imagination and helping to expand my understanding of reality outside of our borders. To see that everywhere, life goes on, no matter how different it may be from the suburban lifestyles of the United States.

The once-invisible people I imagined from the airplane window above instantly become real. Mothers with strollers on the metro, families rushing to dinner, homeless people begging near bus stops — the world suddenly collides with my imagination, and I realize how much smaller and more insignificant I am.

Because having the luxury of being an American tourist means that you have the opportunity to properly invest your time abroad into some actual character building. To step out of the tourist gimmicks and traps, and past the cliché Instagram-tailored adventures and day trips — and instead, wade into the daily life of foreign cities and towns and experience how people still exist with the same stresses and desires outside of our borders.

Everywhere in the world, people want not just security, food, shelter or even democracy — but the same complex lives with all the same emotions we develop back home. Everywhere, human beings are being human. They want to laugh with friends, argue over sports or competitions, to fall in love.

My imagination never pictures that when I think of some foreign country. And that is why every opportunity I have to travel abroad, I continually embrace the awe I have over the size and complexity of the world and human life outside of my small suburban bubble. That hopefully my imagination — which was shaped by an adolescence living in an over-ambitious capitalistic global superpower — will one day be curbed and grow in empathy and understanding. To not picture the world as small, but remember how humbled I was by the view out of a plane window. To remember that these far-away places are filled with people like me.

There is a common desire among the young, educated millennials I know to travel to and experience as many countries in the world as possible. I believe there exists this obsession (amplified by the photo-worthiness of social media) to backpack across continents, and one day adorn a trendy IKEA-saturated apartment with souvenirs from Nepal to Brazil. And though on the surface, such goals may seem shallow and reflect a thinking that the world is just a playground to explore — individuals can utilize such trips to develop a greater sense of empathy, trips not for souvenirs and photos, but memories of others and experiences in new lives.

And hopefully, my generation will be one to understand the necessity and importance of international cooperation. That my generation, despite our domestic problems and strife, will be able to develop a sense of empathy not only for the disadvantaged domestically but internationally, as well. I hope that my generation will not look for differences between people, but instead embrace commonalities.

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