Thursday, March 5, 2015

Travel as an anecdote to stereotypes

We all have stereotypes about people and places, as much as we'd like to believe we don't. These stereotypes are intended to help us navigate a complex world, but in practice they often get in the way of actually experiencing it. For me, travel is one of the ways that I challenge the stereotypes that I've been fed. And when I strip away the stereotypes, I find that life is much less stressful and infinitely more delightful.

I don't know why, but I am obsessed with bathrooms (here and here). Perhaps it is because I use them every day and as much as I'd rather forgo the experience sometimes, I cannot get by without them.

At home in Seattle, bathrooms seem relatively predictable. I know there will be a western-style toilet with a built-in flusher, that I'll find free toilet paper, and there will be a sink with soap and something to dry my hands. And yet even though this is my stereotypical American bathroom, not all bathrooms back home are the same:

  • Some toilets automatically flush, while others have a handle or button to press.
  • Some sinks turn on when you wave your hand underneath, while others you turn on with a lever or press a button to dispense a set amount of water.
  • And some bathrooms have paper towels on a roll or as individual sheets, while others offer a "greener" air dryer in one of several form factors. (My favorite is the one where you insert your hands and slowly pull them out while watching the water droplets fling into the abyss.)
But for me, all these differences meld into a single stereotype of a western (or normal) bathroom. And this predictably is soothing. I never stress about going to the bathroom back home, but having to pee in a new place abroad used to give me nightmares.

After years of foreign travel, I have come to expect different sorts of bathrooms in different places. In Asia, I expect a squat toilet with no toilet paper and a sink with no soap or way to dry my hands. In airports, I expect toilet paper and soap, but no towels and the occasional automated flusher and/or sink system. In Europe, toilets generally have two flush options (half or whole). In the backcountry of New Zealand and rural places throughout the world, I expect pit toilets with or without toilet paper and sans handwashing facilities. In Bali, I expect a western style toilet that you have to flush by pouring a bucket full of water into the loo and a trash can for your used TP, which may or may not be provided.

But the reality of a place rarely conforms to my expectations, even in the bathroom. Sometimes the bathrooms in Thailand have both western and squat style toilets, you just have to peek your head into each stall to find the type you prefer. And sometimes there is TP, it's just dispensed from a single roll outside the stalls so you have grab it in advance. Other times there is a bidet nozzle (which I still can't figure out how to use properly despite reading more than how-to article online). Occasionally the toilet has a working flusher, while other bathrooms provide a small bucket floating in a larger bucket of water for you to do the job.

But despite all these differences within Thailand and around the world, essentially all bathrooms are the same. A bathroom is a place where you relieve yourself regardless of how clean or dirty, well-appointed or lacking, the facility is. And yet, we persist in keeping stereotypes about western versus Asian bathrooms, airport versus gas station toilets and all the other varieties out there. And I wonder why we even bother since our stereotypes are the exception more often than the rule.

And it's not just erroneous stereotypes about bathrooms we hold tightly. It's stereotypes about people and entire countries that we believe, often to our detriment.

A friend of mine recently got a massage here in Thailand and concluded that all Thai massage places lack massage tables with head holes. Instead of asking for a different table, he just suffered in silence as his neck cricked up during a 90-minute back massage. When he mentioned the inadequacy of massage tables here, I informed him that some of the tables do have head holes. He was simultaneously annoyed and relieved. For his next massage, he requested a table with a head hole and was much happier.

Another time, I expected the Thai waitress at my favorite coffee shop understood my English when I asked for fried rice with pork. When I was brought fried rice with prawns, I started to protest only to back down and accept the dish as it had been prepared. The reality is that I'm in Thailand and I can't speak the local language to save my life. So when the waitress doesn't know what I want, it's my problem not hers. And yet often times, Thai people do speak good English and I can get by just fine with my three Thai phrases.

But the worst stereotypes aren't about bathrooms, massage tables or language comprehension. The worst stereotypes are those that stop you from experiencing new people and places. A few months ago I met a Nigerian magistrate (judge) on a flight from China to New Zealand. She told me that she is terrified to come to the USA because she thinks she will be shot (so many people are murdered with guns there, she informed me). I, on the other hand, am afraid to go to Nigeria for fear of being kidnapped by warlords. Had it not been for our side-by-side seats on this flight, I would never had met such an inspiring woman. And the news media does nothing to undo our stereotypes, more often than not reinforcing our inaccurate perceptions, and the result is that we miss the opportunity to form friendships with amazing people who live in places we never visit.

When traveling in developing countries, I know so many people who won't eat fresh produce even if its part of a local speciality. I understand that no one likes to get sick, but I had a rude awakening the other day when a Thai friend and restaurant owner was teaching me to make her signature papaya salad. I had put too much garlic in the bowl and reached in with my hand to fish some out. She scolded me for not using a spoon and contaminating the food with my hands. Who knew that my food hygiene was subpar? Luckily, the papaya salad didn't make me sick and I got to enjoy very fresh vegetables despite being in a country with unsafe tap water.

The reality for me is that every place is different, not just that countries are different from each other, but that people and places within each country do not conform to a single stereotype. Some Thai people speak good English, others do not. Some Balinese motorcyclists drive fast and run red lights, while others drive fast but obey traffic signals, and a few drive slow enough that I can pass them. Some western travelers are entitled assholes; some are kind and generous. Some hole-in-the-wall restaurants serve food that makes me sick and others have better sanitary practices than I do.

When I accept that I cannot predict how things will be, I find that I am less stressed out by the wackiness that is this beautiful world. And instead I have the mental space to learn new things, enjoying meeting new people and savor new experiences. I also have developed new coping mechanisms to deal with life's uncertainty. Now when I walk into a bathroom, I come prepared. I carry tissues that I can use as TP, I know to look for the free TP dispensers outside stalls, I peek into the stalls to see if a western flush toilet is an option, I check out the trash bin to see if others have flushed their TP, and when all else fails and the outdoor toilet is disgusting, I pop behind it and pee in the dirt like I'm backpacking. I try not to sweat the small stuff and I accept that sometimes I won't be able to wash my hands after using the loo, occasionally I will get sick from eating something delicious, and I will meet strangers who speak perfect English and think I live in the scariest place on the planet.

My hope for you (who have braved this long post) is that you will leave your stereotypes behind and experience a new place or take a chance on a new person. And perhaps you will find that life is not as scary as you once thought.

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