When I first told my mom that I wanted to travel to Asia, her response was “why? Europe is so much more interesting.” When I told her that she had never been to Asia and therefore had no comparison, she simply stated “well I have no interest.”
A work associate said the same thing a couple of weeks later. “Why would you go there?” he asked me.
I got similar responses from a lot of my friends, who all thought that my first big backpacking trip shouldn’t be on the other side of the planet, that I should go somewhere that was a little closer to home maybe.
My response was always the same two words: “why not?”
Choosing to visit a place that many Americans saw as foreign and perhaps a little intimidating really came down to getting out of my comfort zone and seeing things from my brother’s point of view.
Growing up, I was in a somewhat unique family situation: I grew up in an interracial and adoptive family. I am the oldest of three, but whereas my mom, dad and I are all related by blood and are all Caucasian, my brother and sister are adopted, Hispanic, and from Peru. As I sometimes used to tell people, my parents did the interracial adoption way before Angelina Jolie made it cool.
This does not mean that I loved my siblings any less, but it did mean that we occasionally got some very strange stares, especially when we moved from ethnically diverse North Carolina to Vermont, where whenever my family went out-of-state the ethnic diversity dropped by 20%.
It was a difficult transition for all of us, but none more so than for my younger brother. Even though they were both Hispanic, my sibling’s backgrounds couldn’t have been more different: my sister has a lot of Spanish in her, which meant that if someone was poking fun at her for her race, she could sputter out “I’m not Hispanic, I’m just really tan!”
The case was not so for my brother. With jet-black hair and eyes and dark mocha skin, he was 100% Inca Indian, very rare nowadays. Like the first footprints after a virgin snowfall, his dark features could be easily spotted in a room full of blonde haired and blue eyed individuals, and he has been stared at, judged, singled out, and generally put on display for his whole life, for good or for ill.
As the dutiful older brother, I tried very hard to shield and protect him from the negativity, even though I could never fully grasp his situation; as a white straight male in a country where my appearance is not only the norm, but is catered to, how could I?
It was what my brother dealt with growing up that played a big factor in why I wanted to go to Asia; I wanted to feel what it felt like to be a fish out of water, being unable to blend in, even if only for a short time.
It’s one thing to be in another country where you don’t speak the language, but can still blend in because you have similar skin tone or the same eye color as a majority of the population; you can just keep your mouth shut and be a wallflower. But it’s another thing entirely when you don’t match the rest of the wallpaper.
The first day after I landed in The Philippines (where I not only found out that Caucasians were in the minority, but being a young twenty-something Caucasian was akin to finding a fire-breathing unicorn that grants wishes at the end of a double rainbow), I tried to count how many times I caught a local staring at me; I lost count after about 15 minutes. I had similar experiences in Hong Kong and Japan; I was asked to “model” for a magazine in Shanghai (no really, that was the line), modeled for an insurance company, asked if I was a movie star at least a dozen times, and had my photo taken by countless locals simply because I was Caucasian. I’ll admit, it was kind of cool, but it did wear on me after a while, to the point where I would try and find a quiet coffee shop or an off-the-beaten-path restaurant to stay away from prying eyes, only to be met with more as I entered.
This in no way impacted my experience in Asia, and I would travel there or anywhere else in a heartbeat, but I didn’t realize how shocking being in the minority would be; a few times I messaged my brother about how I was stared at going into a bar, or how everyone made a stereotype about me because I was white, or whatever crazy race-related thing happened to be that day. His general response? “Welcome to my world.”
Having been given a small taste of what it has been like for him, I feel like I can understand his situation a little bit more, and it’s a very large reason why I’m going to continue traveling.
There’s an old proverb that says to truly understand someone you must walk a mile in that person’s shoes, but I believe that saying is incomplete, at least as far as travel goes. In order to truly value your life at home, you need to visit places both near and far, stand out in a crowd, get off the beaten path, and really experience how the other side lives. Because nothing makes you appreciate how good you have it at home more than when the spotlight is always on you, even when you’re just enjoying a cup of coffee.