The Truth Behind the Wanderlust Phenomenon

April 02, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, says Mark Twain. Not all those who wander are lost, says Tolkien. Date a girl/boy who travels, they say. These are just some of many the examples of quotes and articles that are floating around the cyberspace and dominating teen’s profiles and feed on social media these days. Travelling, now more so than ever, has become a hyped-up concept, with more and more getting bitten by the travel bug and trekking across the globe as a result. If you’re here at HKU, there’s a good chance you would have gone on exchange. On any given day on Facebook you’re bound to see at least 2-3 sets of picturesque photos from backpacking friends who seek to make your life miserable by getting you to mourn your long, endless days in the lecture hall. These days on instagram and twitter bios, it seems that everyone is claiming to be a ‘wanderluster’. Behind the bragging though, ‘travelling’ is becoming more of a more a big word that’s casually thrown around by self-indulging youngsters seeking to cultivate an airbrushed virtual identity that is purely fictional. There are a couple of things that the millennial traveller should take note of before shooting their mouths off about the 101 benefits of travelling:

You’re travelling because you’re privileged.

True, you may have kept tabs on that Cathay Fanfare offer or spent long hours crosschecking Skyscanner and Zuji for the best flights. You may have lived on the two-dish sets in school canteens for as long as you can remember just to save up. You may even have worked four jobs alongside your degree for that one trip. But the fact that you’re able to spend it on travelling, and not on your school fees or rent or daily expenses, already puts you in a position more fortunate than many. The advocating of the many benefits of travelling often overlooks one very important factor: namely, the privilege that underlies it all. Those glossy pictures of you leaping in the air in front of the turquoise Southeast Asian water or pretending to touch the tip of the Eiffel towel with your finger – behind it all lurks a pile of money. Articles who claim that one should date someone who travel or even the depiction of the miserable daydreaming heap that was Walter Mitty before his excursions to Greenland and Iceland all seem to assert that people who travel are somewhat above those who don’t. Many have made fun of ‘the close-mindedness’ of those who have never left their country, but for some, this is not out of choice; it’s simple a privilege they cannot afford to enjoy. This is especially so for teenagers, who generally have a very low earning ability, if any at all. Promoting an elitism attached to travelling without putting yourself into the shoes of those who can’t is like going up to children in a third world country and saying you’re better than them because you’re literate and they’re not.

Voyages come in all forms and shapes, and not all are worth revering.

Not all are worth revering, but that’s okay. What I’m sick of is hearing all these experiences lumped under the umbrella of ‘travelling’ and then hearing self-proclamations of how one has grown, regardless of what actually went down in reality. To illustrate the possible discrepancies in those experiences, here is a list of categories that most travellers in Hong Kong can be classified into:

- The lazy traveller. We’ve all been through this phrase, particularly in our young age, when we still had to travel with our parents. The lazy travelling experience includes heading to the nearest travel agency (mostly Hong Tai or Wing On), paying a fee, and having the entire trip booked and taken care of. The return flights, the coach rides to different sightseeing spots, the multilingual guide who goes on incessantly about the local history even when it’s 6 in the morning and everyone’s fast asleep, the banquet-style meals at local diners, the accommodation. These tours often throw in much-dreaded tours to souvenir shops that seek to drain all the money out of your pocket. All you literally have to do is sit back, relax, feast your eyes on exotic monuments and landscape.

- The checklist traveller. Sleep is for the weak. Since you’re here for a mere week, 7 days, 168 hours, 10080 minutes, it’s absolutely necessary to make every minute count. You will not rest until you’ve tried that 3-star Michelin dim sum (even if it’s just really the same with that which you get down the street from your hotel), or seen Mona Lisa with your own eyes (even if you can see the details far more clearly on your laptop computer) or check out that cute cartoon-themed café (even if you really can’t even finish a cup of coffee with the time you’ve allocated yourself). Every item on the travel checklist must go.

- The bourgeois traveller. You’re obviously loaded – or at least, Mommy and Daddy are. You don’t know the meaning of the word “budget airline”. Taxis are the only acceptable mode of transport (Because everyone in Southeast Asia will rip you off! Because roads are polluted and dirty!). Five-star service, five-star accommodation, five-star dining. Shopping is a must. Your favourite spots are spas and massage parlors. Basically, you do just about the exact same thing you do in Hong Kong, or anywhere else, for that matter.

- The holidaying traveller. Beaches and lots of booze. ‘Nuff said.

- The pseudo backpacker. Read the paragraph “You’ll Be On a Unique and Original Journey” in this article – I believe the writer has put it better than I ever could.

- The real backpacker. Renouncing the mundane of everyday life, these people have done it all – surfed on stranger’s couches, put creatures you wouldn’t dream of touching in their mouths, mastered a million languages. Yet the Special Snowflake Syndrome is also especially prevalent among this category; they’ll hint heavily that because they’ve rejected expectations of the society by taking a gap year or quitting their job, they’re somehow better than you. Ignorance is simply not tolerated; a brief conversation sometimes feels like a quiz show where the audience is laughing at you because the capital of a certain country slipped your mind.

The variety in the potential experiences that a traveller can have shows that in reality, few journeys live up to the many fantasies people have about travelling. We tend to believe travelling makes one more courageous, more adventurous; we believe travelling helps us ‘find ourselves’ in an exotic land miles away from home; we believe it makes us smarter, more open-minded, less likely stereotype and generalize; we believe travelling enables you to step out of our comfort zone. In turn, we also like to proclaim that we have accomplished all of the above and therefore emerged from the experience a better person. This may be stating the obvious, but whether or not this is true depends not on the act of travelling itself but your own attitude. Of the above categories, which one do you fall under? Different people in different categories take away different things from travelling; some may not take away anything at all. If you’re asserting that your horizons have been broadened, some simple questions to ask yourself may be: Have I made an effort to talk to at least one local to understand his or her life? Did I learn a couple of new phrases in the local language? Did I walk away with at least a couple of new facts on its history or politics, such as what the predominant religion is or who rules the country? Did I do something that scares me? Upon self-reflection, have I learnt one new thing about myself on the trip? Though this list of questions is by no means exhaustive or conclusive, if you’ve answered no to all of the following, you might want to take a step back and ask yourself: have I really gained anything through travelling at all?

If you make an effort, you can learn just as much back home; if you don’t make an effort, even travelling won’t get you anywhere.

On the note of attitude, there are definitely ways to learn just as much without stepping out of your country at all. If you’re seeking for an intercultural exchange, make an effort to talk to the international or exchange students around you (there is almost definitely at least one in each of your class), or join the local couchsurfing gatherings. If you wish to learn more about the country, books, Wikipedia or BBC’s country profiles are there at your service. Of course, travelling puts you in a different mindset by allowing you to see and feel things on your own; it also distances you from the distraction of your surroundings. All this eases the process of learning. But the act of learning itself is not something that happens without conscious effort, and definitely not something that should be assumed. Well-travelled individuals may have more opportunities to better themselves than those who haven’t, but whether these opportunities are put to good use depends on you yourself. If you’re partying till the crack of dawn and sleeping in till past the museum’s opening hours every day, you know how much you’re really learning.

While I note that this post does contain traces of travel snobbery and slight hypocrisy on my part, I’m by no means suggesting that there is one absolute ‘correct’ way to travel. There isn’t. It’s you holiday, and you are perfectly entitled to do whatever you wish. Every now and then, I, too would like to fly over a thousand miles to do nothing and roll around on my king-sized bed in the hotel room and surf the net. But for the love of God, while you’re at it don’t instagram a picture of the view from your window, stick a cheesy quote in, and claim how much you’re growing in the process. You’re not fooling anyone.