Sometimes, I'm a little embarrassing. You know how television often depicts well-traveled individuals as these all-knowing, socially savvy, wonderful creatures of mystery? They wear shoes that they bought in Morocco, and drink wine that they once tried in Paris, and know how to say "Where is the bathroom?" in 15 different languages. They know what the capital of every country is, have an opinion on current events that wows people they just met in bars, and quote ancient wisdom they once heard from a Buddhist monk while in China.
However, it's not like that at all in real life, at least for me. I stumble through my adventures with very little grace, and in reality I feel like travel is a series of awkward moments strung together (in a good way). YOLO, right? I try my best to hold nothing back when I travel because I know I won't get a chance to relive those moments ever again. For this reason, I have become way too comfortable with asking questions and sometimes that leads me into some awkward situations.
I've just had to accept that I'm going to miss some cultural cues here and there, and that in the moment it's going to be totally embarrassing, but eventually it will benefit me because I'll learn from the situation. In the past, I have asked for iced tea in Ireland (Why would anyone in their right mind drink iced tea in a country where it's constantly cold and rainy? Just so you know, nobody drinks iced tea in Ireland.), I've asked Europeans what they do for Thanksgiving (FYI, the rest of the world doesn't embrace this holiday), I've completely confused national governments (Isn't everybody over here, like, under the queen or something?), and the list goes on and on. Heaven forbid I reflect on this too long, because there are probably other misunderstandings that have occurred that I still am not aware of. But why on earth would I ever assume that another country is completely unaware of American culture and traditions. Aren't we the center of the world? Even if these small faux pas weren't committed on purpose, it became very obvious to me over time that my view of the world is highly skewed by my country of origin and the culture I grew up in.
When traveling, it's difficult to take everything you're seeing and put it into a bias-free context. Often, I hear travelers mentioning how much things remind them of home. This beach looks like a beach at home, or this restaurant reminds me of one in my neighborhood back home. Sometimes, these comparisons get so extreme that everything starts to look "just like home." This Starbucks reminds me of the Starbucks at home! A Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks, and a paper coffee cup is a paper coffee cup is a paper coffee cup. At what point are we in danger of missing out on the full picture by placing everything we're seeing into the context of "home"?
Technology has changed culture forever. Due to the constant sharing of ideas via web, television, etc. it is becoming more and more difficult to determine the origin of cultural factors. In fact, cultures are becoming so intermixed that they are creating new and completely separate sub-cultures of their own. Movement across borders makes it much more difficult to hold onto architectural styles, art, colloquialisms, and other badges of uniqueness that particular cities or countries can stake claim on. So, how surprised should we be that something here or there reminds us of home? From this perspective, the world seems so small, but it definitely shouldn't make travel any less magical.
Perhaps what we should focus on while traveling is the experience rather than the rigid categorizations that we tend to place cultural factors into. When I was recently traveling in Canada, I tried poutine. Poutine is a dish that includes french fries topped with a gravy and cheese curds. My first thought, having lived in Ireland for a significant amount of time, was "this isn't poutine, this is a gravy chip (a delicious dish consisting of french fries and gravy that is often found in the UK and Ireland, and perhaps other places in Europe that caused me to gain a lot of weight while I was studying in Ireland- no regrets)." And honestly...does it even matter? Do I have to assign an origin to this thing, or can I appreciate how much there is a connection between food in Canada and Ireland despite having a huge ocean separating the two countries.
This is a small example, and I'm sure the majority of you do not spend hours at home analyzing how your french fries came to be in existence (although this is literally something that I myself do all the time. Guilty! #anthropologist #gradschoolproblems #whocares). However, using the lens of "home" can affect your traveling experiences in so many other ways! You lose the opportunity to learn how someone in that country views their country, which is vastly different than how you view it as a foreigner.
So, while I can't deny that the smell of Starbucks in another country does actually remind me of home (ahhhh the smell of American consumerism), I, in general, try not to let my American bias affect how I experience another country's culture. I ask a lot of questions, I seek connections, and I accept things as they are, not as I think they are or want them to be. This, I believe, is one of the best lessons that I could have learned as a traveler, and as a person. It has helped me in so many other areas of my life not to pre-judge. You can take off your "American shades" too. You just have to try, and you have to be prepared to be open-minded. And honestly, every once in awhile, you're going to make a faux pas and order iced tea in an extremely cold country. But you won't regret the embarrassment, because you'll be more cultured than you were before.