One of the things that always amazes me when I travel is that I often feel more welcomed and appreciated abroad than I feel in my own home. What could be behind this?
In Muslim cultures the wanderer is to be welcomed and treated as a guest. It’s part of the cultural philosophy of parts of the world where nomads bring wisdom and perhaps goods to trade. But it also is embedded in the faith. I always feel lavishly welcomed and hosted in those cultures. But it is never an affected air spurred by obligation or a display of overt generosity. It is always genuine.
When I visited the home of master drummer Doudou N’diaye Rose in Dakar, Senegal, I was overwhelmed with their generosity in welcoming me to join their family dinner. I was not a particularly worthy or notable guest. I was just a tremendous fan. Yet I was fed and interviewed extensively, then whisked off to meet Mr. Rose in person with a heightened sense of formality.
Another time, my father and I were traveling in Bristol, England. I was studying bridge design in my physics class. My father suggested we go to study the Clifton suspension bridge to see if it might inform my own model bridges. While we were discussing the bridge at a tea shop, an elderly couple asked if they could join us at our table. Upon learning that we were “Yanks,” they insisted that we come with them for a tour of their city, including a small community of “Hobbit homes” that looked like they were right out of the Lord of the Rings! We never would have seen this hidden side of the town without such wonderful guides.
I remember the first time I visited China, I rolled off a ferry boat on a bicycle in the port of Tianjin and was immediately surrounded by dozens of people who were curious about me and what I was doing. People were so curious, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t speak more than 10 phrases in Mandarin, that they rode their bikes along side me for kilometers in a makeshift parade as I set off for Beijing.
If you watch Anthony Bourdain’s culinary travel shows, you see a bit of this profound openness that people display toward the traveler. I’ve felt that literally everywhere I’ve traveled. While of course I’ve met people who regarded me with suspicion, I’ve found people very quickly break the shell to reveal a smile if prompted.
Back when I was going to head off to live abroad, I asked my father for any tips. He suggested that I take tips from the missionaries who survived visits to Papua New Guinea’s inland tribes. “Be sure to make eye contact!” Cannibal cultures, he explained, have a word for “friend” that means: someone you look in the eye. If you address someone respectfully, you must look them in the eye, and if you do that you’re less likely to be judged quickly. My father commented, “People want to be known. They want to share their stories.” He suggested I watch Brother from Another Planet to study the proper art of paying attention to people. Then he taught me his go-to Kung Fu mantra: “What do you think?”
I know that in some cultures eye contact can be seen as adversarial. But for some reason, if you look at someone with curiosity and welcoming, it usually prompts a smile and a regard of similar nature.