No, You Don’t “Travel Like a Local”
And that’s okay
When we travel, we expand ourselves not by turning inward but by looking outward, interacting with other people. Do we see only differences — language, cuisine, customs — or do we also identify commonalities, a shared humanity? This is empathy. If we don’t empathize, at least a little, with those we encounter, we never really see them.
Empathizing with other people, though, doesn’t mean becoming them. I know it’s fashionable to brag that you “travel like a local.” No, you don’t. You travel like a foreigner. That’s because you are one. And that’s OK.
The empathetic traveler doesn’t try to fit in. She knows that is impossible and that there are advantages to seeing places at an angle. One of the best books about U.S. democracy was written by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. This is no coincidence. An observant outsider often sees what insiders do not.
Embrace your outsider status. See your destination through your own eyes, but make sure your eyes are wide open.
To be honest, I’m not even sure what “traveling like a local” means. Locals include dishwashers working for minimum wage, wildly wealthy tech entrepreneurs, and immigrants, too. Which local, exactly, are you traveling like?
You don’t travel as a blank slate. You bring a lifetime’s worth of experiences, predilections, and, yes, prejudices with you. Again, that is okay. What is not okay is returning home with those prejudices intact, unchallenged.
Rather than traveling like a local (impossible anyway), embrace your outsider status. See your destination through your own eyes, but make sure your eyes are wide open. Be willing to see the world as if it were otherwise. Avoid what Henry David Thoreau called “the view from nowhere.” There is nothing to see there.
One great way to make yourself a more empathetic traveler: travel alone. A solo traveler says talk to me. Traveling solo makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability lies at the heart of the travel experience. An added benefit: The lone traveler can roam with a lighter touch and a smaller footprint than a group.
It boils down to that silly old tourist-versus-traveler debate. Everyone considers themselves a traveler. not a tourist. That, of course, is impossible, It’s like those studies that find that the vast majority of people consider themselves to be an above-average driver. A statistical impossibility. Somebody has to be below average. And somebody has to be the tourist. It might as well be you.