Alas, this will be my last dispatch for Powell's before my reading at the store on Burnside tonight...
As some of you may know, my new book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, is the story of a backpacking trip I took to China in 1986 that ended up disastrously. Full of exuberance (i.e. naivete and hubris), my friend Claire and I plunged headlong into the People's Republic of China, only to find ourselves caught in a modern-day Heart of Darkness. And we nearly didn't make it out.
As I've mentioned in an earlier blog,I'm telling my story in part because I wanted to puncture the myth of the brawny, triumphal American abroad. And yet, as I'm starting to tour the country, I'm finding that some parents are reading the book not so much as a great adventure, but as a cautionary tale. Its message: Don't let your kids out of your sight!
Uh-oh! Settling a pillow beneath my head, let me cry, "No! That is not what I meant at all!" Right now, thanks to our hideous economy, applications to the Peace Corps are up 30%, and more and more young people are opting to travel after college instead of trying to find a job.
And I can't encourage this enough. Go West! Go East! Go anywhere, folks!
In an ideal world (or my own, parallel little universe-and-queendom of Gilmania), all Americans would have enough time and money to travel abroad. Not only is this an exhilarating and mind-dilating experience, but as citizens of what is still the only Superpower on the globe, it really behooves us to get a sense of the greater world out there — a world that we impact every day with almost everything that we do.
I live in Europe these days, and ironically, the folks in the Old World experience the daily effects of our government far more palpably than we glassy-eyed Yanks do.
A small case-in-point: Until recently, every building constructed in neutral Switzerland was required to have a bomb shelter. Why? Because in the event of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Swiss figured that some of the missiles would inevitably fall short of their targets and land on Geneva and Zurich instead. (I shit thee not. Our apartment building, constructed ten years ago, has a bomb shelter. It now doubles as a storage locker for people's Christmas decorations and bicycles.)
Yet, for a bunch of flag-wavers and chest-pumpers, we Americans are strangely oblivious to this impact we have.
Never again in your life will you be so unencumbered, nor think that it's great to sleep on the roof of a youth hostel in Bangkok for only $6 a night. You will have the rest of your years to build a career, harness yourself to a mortgage and kids, and settle down. At this stage, you should have a magnificent combination of curiosity, energy, and innocence, combined with a heightened threshold for physical discomfort. Exploit this.As soon as you get a job promising a whopping two weeks' annual vacation, you're screwed. So get a backpack, defer the student loans, and carpe diem.
Certainly, it's likely to be cheaper than the cost of living in a major American city for six months. It'll be a better education than any university course. And hell, it beats unemployment.
As for where to go, I'd say go anywhere, barring war zones and places for which the State Department has issued serious travel warnings. Figure out what your comfort zone is, then step outside of it a mile or two.
That said, don't leap as blindly as I did two decades ago. Do some homework beforehand. Read about the culture, history, and current political system of wherever you're going. Be aware of how women are treated and how women travelers may be regarded (generally, it's a good idea to leave the shorts at home and get some gauzy cotton blouses to throw over the tank tops).
Above all else, learn a few words of the local language.
I've found "thank you" to be the single most important phrase to know while traveling, with "hello" and "please" running a tie for close second. Just by making an effort, you'll be treated infinitely better as a foreigner anywhere.
You do not need to be fluent. I'm talking about knowing the absolute basics. Carrying a phrasebook is fine. You will not risk looking like an idiot — you will look like you are trying to communicate, and this will be enormously appreciated. It is a sign of respect.
It is crucially important for anyone when traveling — but particularly us Americans — to be humble and polite when interacting with the locals. This sounds so simple and obvious, but so many Western travelers ignore it, it's staggering. They don't say "hello," or "do you speak English?" or "please." They either bark at people gruffly, or start pantomiming insultingly, and they get annoyed when the concessionary "hamburger" or "apple pie" on the tourist menu isn't on par with back home. They act boorish, then wonder why the locals treat them coldly.
I've even seen "uber-cool" backpackers do this, and it's hideous.Avoid ignorant arrogance at all costs. And if you want mostly hamburgers (or, conversely, to stick to your vegan diet) above all else, stay home.
Always remember that you are a guest in someone else's country, and that how you interact with them will likely color the way they view Americans in general. Be flexible and polite. Always err on the side of your most straitlaced, moral inner self.
That said, also keep your wits about you. In terms of behavior, don't do anything abroad that you wouldn't normally do at home — be it getting into a taxi without a meter or a pre-negotiated price, wandering off with strange men, buying drugs, flashing money around.
Do not go in with an agenda, either — be it converting locals to Christianity, proving how tough you are, or sticking to a rigid itinerary.
To be a traveler is to surrender. To go abroad is to forfeit control over your environment and your ability to navigate it. This always creates great anxiety within me at first — even now — and it might with you, too. (Or not. Everyone reacts differently.) But if you find yourself freaking out a little, know that it is normal and that it'll pass. If you "go with it," as they say, you may find yourself feeling more liberated than you ever did before. And keep a sense of humor. You're in for the ride of your life.
And lastly, I have to say this: take a book. Or two.There are loads of wonderful novels and memoirs that can provide hours of entertainment during long waits in train stations and airports. What's more, they'll enhance your experience in a foreign culture far more than listening to the same thousands of songs on "shuffle" on your iPod.
A few utterly random and heartfelt suggestions:
If you're heading to Europe: Yeah, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a classic for traveling through Spain. For France, Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise is a must. I'd also recommend Patrick Suskind's brilliant novel Perfume, along with Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence is flawed but great for reading along with an intake of Impressionism and southern France. For Italy, Robert Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures, is a pleasure, as is Miss Garnet's Angel, which is a precious but fitting novel for Venice.
South America? Oohh. Classics! One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Yeah, it's a cliché to recommend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but he is a master. Anything by Isabelle Allende works, too.
If you're going to Africa, there's so much fabulous reading beyond Karen Blixin. I loved Alexandra Fuller's memoir Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight and Peter Godwin's When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, while Ryszard Kupuscinski's In the Shadow of Sun is perhaps the ultimate travel memoir of all time. Read locally, too: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart tops the list. As for Morocco — Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky is a classic. And Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is a terrific read set in modern-day Egypt.
Central Asia — there's so much to chose from! I adored Taman Aman's A Golden Age, set in Bangladesh during its fight for independence. Pakistan? Mortenson and Relin's Three Cups of Tea is unputdownable, of course, though it's as much inspiration literature as travelogue. Amazing books are set in India. My current two favorites are Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.
Southeast Asia? Micheal Herr's Dispatches should be required reading for anyone tromping to Vietnam these days — ditto for Li Ly Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Haruki Murakami's After Dark is great reading for Japan, along with Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen.
And China? Well, what can I say? There's a new book out called Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven that's perfect.
So go forth, my fellow Americans! Be cowgirls and cowboys — but humbly. Explore and learn. And above all, stay literate!
A heartfelt "thank you" to Powell's for giving me such a terrific forum for a week. I hope everyone has enjoyed my blogs.
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Susan Jane Gilman is the author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara. She has written commentary for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Ms. magazine, among others, and her fiction and essays have received several literary awards. Though she has lived most recently in Geneva, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C., she remains, eternally, a child of New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Susan Jane Gilman is the author of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven