By the time I finally had to go away from home, I was a perfectly restrained, introverted, overly careful individual. Even away from the protective grip of the family, my life still consisted of repeating the cycle of acts that were familiar to me and which gave me the feeling of safety and security.
That all changed when I traveled to Vietnam for the first time. My previous trips abroad, well-planned and short-lived as they were, took place well within a cultural standard which was still known to me. The architecture, food, clothing style and expected behaviour were largely the same as the ones I was accustomed to. As such, traveling had no major impact on me at first.
Culture shock finally caught up with me as soon as I landed in Vietnam. Without sounding unnecessarily poetic, the world had a different colour there. Or better put multiple colours. The very environment was essentially different and foreign to me. For the first time, I gained real perspective, becoming aware of my individuality and size on this planet.
From hand gestures to clothes and greetings, everything was different. Without realizing, at first I mostly glared at my new surroundings and the people populating it. Interaction seemed wildly inappropriate. Culture shock had overwhelmed me with silence.
After the initial shock, my plan all side tried to compensate the novel surroundings by behaving as it usually did. The street was covered in colour and diversity. Speaking to the peculiar strangers made me realize, despite our differences, how much we had in common. Instead of sightseeing, I let the city take me wherever it wanted. Going off the beaten track led me to meet different people. Their world was dramatically different than mine, with values and goals that barely even occurred to me. Interacting with them reminded me of something that I already knew..that the world is vast and that my safety zone is but a speck of dust in it.
My own outfit became rich in colours and surrounded by my new friends-slash-guides, I discovered the feeling of being part of a community. This is something that I experienced in other places as well. Living side by side with starkly different people from across the globe, even for a limited amount of time, taught me acceptances and friendship.
The Experience And The Lesson
Since my first trip to Vietnam, I traveled as much as I could and I had always wanted to see Europe. After all, what better multicultural country to start than one which has 4 official languages? Switzerland was absolutely mesmerizing and Annecy proved to be as breathtaking as my Vietnamese experience. I felt my wanderlust blossoming as flowers do in spring. My path carried me from the French Alps to the border of the Atacama Desert, from the Panama Canal to the high slopes of Tibet. With each travel, I discovered another piece of my true self and got to know myself bit by bit.
The entire experience I got from traveling and exploring different cultures was not that it changed who I was, but that it primarily allowed me to discover parts of me that I did not previously know.
I discovered that I could live in the present without having to nervously plan my every waking moment. My true self, a psychological concept that is cross-culturally stable, was not that of a frightened introvert, but of a charming and outgoing person that could befriend total strangers in a few minutes.
At the same time, I found that I could deal with large periods of being on my own. Alone and often confused, I had to face every situation by counting on my ability to pull through no matter. If confident is not the way in which I would have described myself before, traveling revealed to me a strength and an ability to adapt that I never thought I had.
Perhaps the most important lesson I got from traveling and exploring different cultures is that the best journey is within ourselves. No matter where, when and with whom we are at any given point in our lives, we can make the most of it and live life to its fullest by being our true selves. The best way to discover that part of us, of course, is by exploring different cultures.