Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Futility of Travel

Stanley Fish confesses to a dislike of travel and a particular distaste for the idea of using travel to learn about foreign people:

When I ask people what they like about traveling, they usually answer, I enjoy encountering different cultures and seeing how other people live. I am perfectly happy with the fact of other cultures, and I certainly hope that those who inhabit them live well; but that’s as far as it goes.

By definition, a culture other than yours is one that displays unfamiliar practices, enforces local protocols and insists on its own decorums. Some of them even have different languages and are unhappy if you don’t speak them. To me that all spells discomfort, and I don’t see why I should endure the indignities of airplane travel only to be made uncomfortable once I get where I’m going. As for seeing how other people live, that’s their business, not mine.
I agree. I just don't find it 'fun' to find myself in a place where nothing is familiar and where I don't speak the language. I recognize that many people are drawn to the sense of adventure in that experience, but I am not.

Maybe it's a question of granularity. When I entertain an idea of wanting to understand 'how life is' for someone, I have small-scale particulars in mind: how, for example, it really feels to be a non-American living amid a media environment dominated by American and American-inspired content, what it's like to wake up to a normal in which scorpions are everyday food, how Shakespeare sounds to non-English speakers, how Goethe sounds to a native German speaker, etc.

I expend more than enough effort puzzling out the culture into which I was born, and every day brings fresh reminders of how much puzzling out I have left to do. If I ever arrive at subjectively confident and stable judgments about 'how life is' for the people immediately around me, maybe I'll revisit my doubts of the futility of using travel to sort out 'how life is' for faraway people.

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