I have recently began studying in
Salamanca, Spain, with one of the University’s study abroad
programs. I’ve gone abroad several times before, and each
time, it becomes more and more interesting to observe the
first-time travelers in the group. It’s not hard to find
them. They give themselves away by the way they bring too many
suitcases, forget to wear money-belts and insist on showing off
designer clothes. The most obvious giveaway, however, are their
misconceptions about travel, which is quite possibly one of the
most idealized activities the world has to offer. They think that
traveling can be likened to a continuous state of bliss, and that
somehow, they can erase a lifetime of living in the United States
to easily fit into whichever country they happen to be in.

Bonnie Kellman

After a few days, however, reality begins to set in. “This
definitely isn’t how I thought it’d be,” one of
these travelers, tired from a hectic first week in Madrid, told me
over lunch. “Sometimes, I feel like I would be having just as
much fun at home.” She swirled her lemonade. “But my
parents probably think I’m so happy, I’m dancing on the
tabletops right now. So of course I can’t tell them
that.”

It’s true. Even if your trip doesn’t go exactly as
planned, what are you supposed to tell your friends and family back
home, who are eager for cool and exciting stories about your time
abroad? As a returning traveler, you have a responsibility to
entertain. I never felt this more than when I returned from
visiting my sister in Japan earlier this summer. As soon as I
stepped off the plane, my family wanted stories, more stories than
I had to tell.

I told as many as I could. And I do have a few good ones, a few
postcard-perfect moments that shine against the rest. I told them
about the iris garden at the Meiji-jingu Shrine, the Imperial
Palace and kabuki theater. I concluded with references to
“personal growth” and lessons in
“self-reliance.” I even threw in “cultural
understanding” for good measure.

Of course, when I’m telling all this, there are so many
things I’m not saying. I’m failing to mention that I
thought more about practical matters, like food and hostel
reservations, than about any of the sights. I won’t say how
my sister and I seemed to spend half our time on trains and buses.
And I definitely won’t admit that one time, due to a lack of
money and linguistic skills, we resorted to eating a jar of peanut
butter for dinner on the overnight train from Sapporo to Toyama.
Contrary to popular belief, real life is real life no matter where
you go.

But most of all, I won’t even attempt to explain what a
lonely experience losing your language and your culture is. Call it
“culture shock” if you will. All I know is that
you’ll become acutely aware of how different you are from
everyone else, how you’ll suddenly understand the importance
of language once no one can understand what you’re saying,
how in only a matter of days, your situation will become your world
and your identity. You’ll know that there’s a place out
there called the United States, a place where people speak English
and are loud and obnoxious and not afraid to start arguments.
You’ll know this, but you won’t feel this. It’s
easy to begin to think that you’ll never fit in anywhere,
ever again.

I won’t tell you any of this because chances are, you
won’t want to hear. You want to listen to profound and exotic
reminiscences, so I’ll humor you with my stories, and the
misconceptions about traveling will continue on, safe and
sound.

Sometimes, I wonder why I bother to travel at all. Every time I
go abroad, I decide that I’d never want to live anywhere but
the United States, that my home is the most beautiful place on
Earth. I wonder why I bother to spend so much time and money
trotting around the globe, jumping from country to country in my
efforts to see the world.

Really, the answer is simple: because the Universe is larger
than we’ll ever be able to fathom. Because there’s
millions upon millions of galaxies out there, and if you manage to
spend your entire life in the same small town, the same state, even
the same country, you might as well be living with your head in the
ground for all your seeing of the world. This is our home. We have
a responsibility to explore it.

Kellman can be reached at
“mailto:bonkell@umich.edu”>bonkell@umich.edu.

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