How a Year of Language and Travel Made Me a Better Global Citizen

This isn’t the pretentious ‘global citizen’ that you hear in hostels from hipsters who think their own passport isn’t cool enough to warrant a straight answer when you ask where they’re from. I mean the actual philosophical, civic, and social idea of being a global citizen and participating in global society.

As Wikipedia defines it:

In broad usage, the term global citizenship or world citizenship typically defines a person who places their identity with a ‘global community’ above their identity as a citizen of a particular nation or place. The idea is that one’s identity transcends geography or political borders and that the planetary human community is interdependent and whole; humankind is essentially one.

But no matter how far out of fashion particular passports might be any given year, none of us can ever shake off the places and cultures that nurtured us into adults. For many people this means a national culture, the feeling of being ‘American’ or ‘Chinese’.

Some were born in countries that no longer exist — Soviets, Yugoslavs, South Yemenis, East Germans. Maybe soon Iraqis and Syrians. Others come from or live in countries that have never existed in the modern world.

Many of the world’s citizens come from countries that hold composites of discrete neighboring cultures within their borders, or that are just too geographically enormous to use a national demonym as a catch-all label for the divergent peoples within. Their identities are often local: Quebecois, Texans, Siberians.

Others of ethnic enclaves, suppressed minorities, stateless nations, or other peoples that extend across political borders, might identify with an ethnic nation: Kurds, Maya, Rohingya, Catalonians, Aymara, Frisians, Tutsis, Houthis, Tuaregs, Uyghurs, Palestinians.

And the residents of our global cities tend to have, ironically, the most intensely local identities: New Yorkers, Londoners, Porteños, Hong Kongers, Parisians, Paulistanos.

This year I know that every single person I met had some way of conceiving of their place in the world with terms like these. Different people assign different levels of importance to these ideas, but they’re all there, invisibly mediating the way we interact with the world and the other humans we share it with.

Here are some of my takeaways from a year of going new places and learning a new language facilitated my understanding of the many layers of perspective and identity that together make up who we are and how we see the world around us.

global citizenship USA

You can take the boy out of ‘Murica, but you probably can’t take him out of the 4th of July party.
Photo by Neil Jarvie.

As my global outlook broadened, I relearned to appreciate the local

This is a post about what I learned about global citizenship in 2015, but the most important part of that, counterintuitively, was a new understanding of roots, origins, place on its smallest scale, and the here-and-now.

Of all the scales of national identity I described above, my own self-concept most strongly aligns with the idea of belonging to a particular segment of a multicultural state: I come from an enormous country — the fourth largest by land area and third largest population on the planet — that’s a tossed salad of cultures rather than the melting pot we try to force it to be.

This year I’ve learned a lot about how growing up as a tomato or some fancy lettuce has informed my worldview more so than the salad as a whole ever reasonably could.

global citizenship tallahassee

The Florida state capitol building in the backdrop behind a newly constructed park in Tallahassee.

The longer I keep traveling and living for months or years in foreign locales and cultures, the more I think about these scales of identity. In two and a half years in the Netherlands, I discovered that no matter how good your language skills or how many times you cycle hands-free between buses while texting and eating fries and juggling babies, you can never learn a second childhood. You’ll never learn to have been one of the toddlers cradled in the snug child’s seat on the back of Dad’s bike; no amount of acculturation or appropriation will retroactively implant a few formative years’ worth of environmental influences and experiences.

But I’ve also learned how adult experiences can become just as central, though not foundational, to your identity and your ever-evolving personality.

global citizenship leids ontzet

Just after the 3 Oktober parade in celebration of the city of Leiden’s independence from the Spanish, the biggest local event of the year.

The more I traveled up and down and through the United States in recent years — through Cajun Country in Southern Louisiana, the Caribbean cosmopolitanism of Miami, the church-goin’ creativity and progressiveness of Nashville, the traditional West African Gullah culture forcibly transplanted to the Carolina Sea Islands — the more I learned that some parts of my ‘homeland’ were as foreign to me as the Netherlands had ever been, that in some places my social behaviors needed to be adjusted to keep from provoking a mob of angry or passive-aggressive villagers.

nashvillebridge

Downtown Nashville, an American city that combines the traditional with the artistic and the progressive.

As I piece these two ideas together — the fact that I’ll never have any teen years other than the ones I had in North Florida, and that a day’s drive in any direction someone else was living out teen years that had nothing but stars and stripes in common with mine — I find that my appreciation for the local has soared to the top of my list of attachments, affections, and loyalties. I started noticing last year that the longer I stayed abroad and the more I saw of my own country, the more Floridian, rather than American, I felt.

southbeach2

South Beach, Miami

I met American expats all over and, of course, the cultural communication barrier is always low with someone whose passport was issued by the same government as yours. That’s why it goes without saying that many of the best new friends I’ve made this year and in others have come from Denver and Washington and Boston and Chicago and little nowhere towns in the South and the Northeast and the Midwest.

me josh daniel

Two of my favorite new people I met this year while hitchhiking my way to Mexico, both American.

But when I met other people from my home state abroad, it’s usually been a more thorough click, a deeper baseline familiarity. Not right away, of course — to get to the local, you first have to dig through the layers of the global, the national, and the regional. It takes a while, but over time I learned that other Floridian travelers and expats knew more of the same pop-cultural mini-phenomena and had similar assumptions about ‘the way things are’.

tree

Palatka is more remote than the Florida town I grew up in, but the saggy trees along the St. John’s River could just as easily be at the end of the road my high school was on.

All my American friends remember taking Lunchables to school as kids, but only Floridians can engage you in a lively debate about the best Publix sub. When I’ve met other Florida folks elsewhere in the US or abroad, we’ve usually had similar sensibilities about clothes (as little as possible; it’s fucking hot), food (as much as possible; it’s fucking delicious), when windows should or shouldn’t be open, how to not get eaten by sharks or various reptiles, and the facts that, no, this is actually not what ‘humid’ feels like, and that yes, y’all is a perfectly acceptable word.

 

In San Antonio, born-and-raised Texans told me about Mexico the way someone describes the cousin of similar age who they sort of grew up with and, despite never really having gone for drinks with just the two of them or anything like that, had learned gradually and somewhat incompletely to understand them. New Yorkers I’ve met abroad have had no sympathy for the way the dial on a radiator completely eludes and sort of frightens me. Bostonians found it suspicious or invasive when I struck up conversations with them in bars. I’ve had to explain to Oregonians in Florida that you can’t just make ‘stupid Christian’ jokes in neighborhoods where you see pickup trucks in most of the driveways.

globalfloat

This year’s Homecoming parade at my alma mater, Florida State University.

This year I realized more than ever how much my hometown and North Florida culture (yes, that’s a thing) have constructed the lens through which I view the world around me. I thought about how much four years of hardly ever interacting with anyone younger than 18 or older than 23 in Tallahassee had influenced me in college, how much my time in Leiden and Mexico City had permeated my mind and continue to work together to constantly recalibrate my worldview.

I also realized that I had real, deep connections to these places — to Middleburg, Tallahassee, Leiden, and Mexico City — each in different ways, but all responsible for core crucial elements of the formula that yields me.

paseo de la reforma

Paseo de la Reforma, maybe the most important avenue in all of Mexico. In the background you can see a parade of protestors who continue for hundreds and hundreds of people outside the edge of the photo.

This entire gigantic globe and its 7 billion humans are dispersed across locales, places, that look on the whole a lot more like Middleburg or Tallahassee or Leiden or Mexico City than they contrast with any of them or the people who live there. In 2015, the place was the context, and the people were the content: equal parts of the human whole.

The more places I go, the more people I meet, and the more the basic human universals continue to reaffirm themselves. In every corner of the globe, the near total majority of people would prefer not to hurt another person than to hurt them, and that that sad, twisted fraction of a percentage point of sociopaths and helplessly disturbed souls is so minute that you’d be much better off worrying about getting hit by a car or succumbing to the long-term effects of your high blood pressure than running into one of the ‘bad guys’.

The universals stand the test of experience, and the local — Leids Ontzet, Mexico City slang, FSU football, the Middleburg Christmas Parade — teaches you about the shades of difference that illuminate and flesh out our humanity. Together, to me, they make up the global: the world is a patchwork of humans and the places they inhabit, and they all have more in common than any of them have differences.

home_forweb

My grandparents’ house in the Shire

These things were all parts of the vague philosophy I’ve been building up for the last several years, but this year I learned to understand their why more deeply and how to articulate them to myself.

I learned a third way of thinking about and relating to the world (and connected more deeply to the second)

My most concrete goal in 2015 was to go to Latin America and learn Spanish. I did both, but neither played out how I’d expected.

Relying on my dusty four years of high school Spanish while crossing the US-Mexican border at Nuevo Laredo was trying to catch fireflies with a fishing net. I recovered the static linguistic feats I had forgotten — do you know how to get to the bus station, how much do these cost, the big brown donkey jumped over the lazy iguana  — out of necessity, but I didn’t ‘learn’ Spanish that way, or at least not enough to use it for its intended purpose.

agenciadeviajes

Learning a new language is almost literally learning a new way of looking at the world. You may not notice it at first glance, but these countries’ names are in Spanish. Is the experience of traveling to Alemania somehow different than that of going to Germany, Duitsland, or Tyskland?

In Monterrey I stayed with my local friend Karen, who I’d met in Leiden the year before, and her family. They fed me in their home and in their family-owned diner Refresquería Juarez with warm enthusiasm that upholds every stereotype about Mexican hospitality. I thanked them by eating everything in their house, trying to be the most sociable and least burdensome house guest I could, and forcing myself through the shaky nervousness of putting together imperfect Spanish sentences. It was a sincere gesture that was appreciated by my new Mexican foster family, but my live-in translator, in the form of Karen’s perfect English, made trying to force myself to speak Spanish a little like trying to quit smoking with a carton of cigarettes in my dresser drawer.

nuevoleon

In Central Mexico I landed in Querétaro, the most idyllic and visually stunning place I had the privilege and pleasure to explore in my eight months in Mexico. There I met Pablo, one of the receptionists at the Blue Bicycle House Hostel, the kind of guy who smiled even while telling you about having his laptop stolen by the police, the type of person whose hand you never shook because he’d pull you into a hug instead. He also spoke fantastic English, but he was happy to help me learn his language. One night he invited me up to the hostel’s rooftop terrace with a friend he’d grown up with, where they shared some Indio beers with me and taught me some Mexican slang, and we just did gezellig.

Somewhere around San Luis Potosí or Querétaro, I realized that with only five months outside the country so far, I already missed the Netherlands and its language terribly. I started downloading Dutch television series, bingeing on the good ones like Penoza and mindlessly taking in the less spectacular ones like Divorce. In Mexico City I watched Hoe Duur Was de Suiker, a sort of docudrama about Dutch colonialism in present-day Suriname. I started reading an article from De Correspondent, the Dutch liberal’s equivalent of the Atlantic or the New Yorker, every day. On long boring shifts at the hostel in Mexico City, I skyped with my euro-skeptic nationalist Dutch cousin and talked frustratedly and eye-rollingly about current events in Europe and the world.

het machtelose woord

One of the many wall poems in their many different languages in Leiden, the Netherlands. The bold line on the left side, het woord is machteloos, translates to ‘the word is powerless’. Some would disagree.

During my last days in Querétaro and my first ones in Mexico City, I reached the most discouraging segment of the language learning curve, the part where your passive reading and listening skills have gotten good enough to show you just how little of the language you actually have at your command yet: your speech has become understandable enough to offend your listeners with your obliviousness to cultural nuances, and your mind constantly suffers from that vacant-eyed, drool-sliding-down-your-chin kind of exhaustion where nothing in any language makes a damn bit of sense.

HostelNOS

In the living room of Hostel Home. If you look at the bottom right corner, you’ll see my laptop screen displaying something with the letters ‘NOS’ in one corner and ‘NPO’ in the other — it’s the Dutch news, the NOS Journaal, which I frequently watched when I was feeling too put-upon by Spanish but too proud for English.

In that time Dutch became my mental refuge, a role in which it never had the opportunity to serve while I still lived in the Netherlands. English feels like cheating, like being lazy, setting my brain to auto-pilot and allowing myself to float disengagedly through the world around me. Dutch is still a foreign language, but next to Spanish, it doesn’t feel foreign at all. It’s that good friend that shows up and rescues me at the party otherwise full of awkward acquaintances. I developed a sort of dependency on it, the way you might if you were constantly, daily attending these parties of strange strangers who for some reason expected you to already know about their histories and personal complexities. Dutch became, for a while, my confidant, the one I tactlessly interrupted at 10:15 and asked quietly if we could go home now because I kind of have a headache.

bike for web

I think maintaining this linguistic safe space in my mind — it wasn’t cheating myself, the way just speaking my native language was, but it also wasn’t something I had to fight for like the one I was still learning — helped me both to learn Spanish and to put my languages in perspective. In a previous life abroad, my mother tongue had also been the default intercultural language: my social life in Leiden was shared with fifteen or twenty nationalities, and English had been the only logical choice for gatherings of more than two or three. Not in Mexico.

There Spanish is the lingua franca, and I used it to communicate with Brazilians and Germans and South Africans and sometimes Americans. Cristina, my Brazilian colleague at the hostel, spoke fantastic Spanish, and I watched her with admiration as she lived a life entirely in her first second language with no visible friction. Suné, from South Africa, was earlier and rustier in her Spanish-speaking journey, and I liked that now and then I could offer her a word that she was missing. My time with my American friend (and name twin) Jake almost always included a gaggle of Argentinians, and we found ourselves more than once alone, just the two of us, communicating in the language of the place around us rather than the one that had raised us and taught us about the world.

In the DF I shopped and drank and moved around the city in Spanish, helped hostel guests in Spanish, briefly and unimpressively managed a local small business in the local language, was threatened in it, had a screaming match with a friend in it, and told people I loved them and was glad to have met them in it.

I didn’t reach the near-perfect Spanish I’d hoped to, largely because of my own Anglophone laziness in a city with over 400,000 Americans, but I became conversational in Mexican and Latino culture. I learned to think of myself as estadounidense rather than americano or gringo, and learned to value the present moment and the interpersonal exchange at hand over what my agenda has planned for me.

jalpan4web

Translating culture shock into cultural empathy

I’ve visited fifteen countries to date, but I only feel like I understand three of them to any extent worth mentioning.

Those are the places where I stepped off the travel trail and found a bed to shove my backpack under for a couple months or a couple years. The places where I’ve worked, studied, rented, learned the language, hosted parties, places from which I’ve taken weekend trips that left me returning on Sunday night to a place I thought of in some way as ‘home’.

DSCF5307

I think it would be ridiculous and arrogant to say that this is the only way to learn about a foreign place, the only way to become a ‘global citizen’; rather, I think it’s a question of scale. How much time do you have to spend in a place, and what do you have to do while there, to suspend your egocentric and culturally limited worldview — not to lock it up and throw away the key, but just to relieve yourself from its constraints and set it aside for a while — and learn from other people who understand something in a way you don’t?

I think there’s a lot of individual latitude in answering this question, but for me it seems to have most to do with sharing a living space, a ‘home’, with people who call somewhere else home, people who think in another language than I do and make their daily and life decisions based on different self-evident truths they hold about the way life is and how people should act.

DSCF3125

In 2013 and 2014, I did this with 9 Dutch students in our shared flat, branching out from the overwhelmingly international and globally-minded group of Dutch and expat friends who started dragging me out into this world in the summer of 2012. Being told that the way you talk about money is inappropriate, taking sides in household arguments over when and where it’s acceptable to have loud sex, and banding together to launch immature coordinated Facebook assaults on our downstairs neighbors when their parties were too loud all seem like petty details, but they’re a few of the thousands of unique little snowflakes that make up cultural learning.

I think once you’ve collected enough of those snowflakes, you can revise your mental image of those people, the Other, as a vaguely person-shaped snowman with a carrot nose and a top hat, and view a culture instead as something human, with arms and legs and a neck that all function just like yours.

freakout

This installation sits outside of a resource building at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s made up of a hundred or so random characters and letters from different world languages and scripts, together forming a person sitting down with knees clutched to chest.

Mexico City in 2015 was a step up and, to be totally open, way out of my comfort zone, in a way I didn’t understand that it would be.

There I started as a volunteer at Hostel Home, where I spent five months as one of the few fixtures on an otherwise revolving door of international staff. At some point, I accepted a job as the manager of the hostel. What a fucking drama and trauma of a learning experience.

hostel reception

The reception at Hostel Home, where I spent a good chunk of my year.

I was working for an Other I’d never thought much about before, the Rich Mexican, and I still don’t know if they took advantage of me or just ran into as much of a culture clash as I did. I was perpetually perplexed and perturbed by my two new bosses’ refusal to answer the phone and the vague Whatsapp messages explaining the key points of things that to them were self-explanatory but to me may as well have been a series of upside-down question marks, and expecting me to sort out the rest for myself.

Whereas working for the owners of Hostel Home was a nightmare, the two months I spent managing the hostel and playing leader with the other volunteers was the best thing that happened to me this year.

familydinner

One of our ‘family dinners’ with hostel staff and guests.

Living with your four coworkers and their four worldviews and norms and expectations is challenging enough, but stepping into the nebulous role of sometimes boss, sometimes drinking buddy, was the social equivalent of an impromptu game of tag in the middle of a minefield. Argentinians, Brazilians, Australians, Americans: they were all my best friends in Mexico City, and I managed to fall into conflicts with all of them, always initiated by something petty like the distribution of the unpopular night shifts, whether and when it was tactful to smoke weed in front of the hostel door, or what constituted ‘professional’ behavior in a workplace where the staff had a well-established system of dibs on the private room when it was unoccupied and somebody needed to get laid.

La Bipolar CDMX

La Bipolar, one of the favorite bars of the hostel staff, is one block away from the hostel. Sometimes drastically different roles are separated by only two or three minutes’ walk.

In retrospect, the ‘conflicts’ with the Americans, Australians, Swedes, and other Westerners were better labeled ‘tiffs’. The kind of little “hey, you never wash your dishes and I’m pissed off about other stuff so fuck you” spats that roommates get into throughout the Western world, where we make individualism sacred and struggle to reconcile it with communal living spaces. But the really bad personality clashes that led to days-long freeze-outs were, every single one, with Latinos, the standard-bearers of the majority culture in which I was a confused and inept guest.

hostel cave

My cave in the dorm I slept in in the hostel. Folded up is the heavy blanket I shoved under the top bunk’s mattress to function like a blackout curtain so I could sleep after nightshifts, and in the back you see the Leiden flag hanging from the other side of the mattress. Navigating difference and one big family and blah blah blah, but now and then I just wanted to not be talking to anyone. In my head I’m the first person who ever hung up blankets on a dorm bed in a hostel and everyone else is copying me.

The eurocentric answer is easy: Latinos are hot-heads with short tempers and questionable respect for the norms of polite society. But that answer is bullshit.

I was told more than once that I was rude, insensitive, mala onda. When my boss cancelled the third meeting in a row, calling me ten or fifteen minutes after we were supposed to meet, I told her that that was unprofessional and that it upset me. When I told my Argentinian colleague, one of the best friends I made in the DF, that we, the staff as a whole, needed him to start doing his shift paperwork right and his fair share of the cleaning so that we didn’t have to redo it on our shifts, he exploded. A pissy hungover exchange that included a couple language blunders left me and my Brazilian friend for a week both thinking that the other was angry about something stupid, which led to a super mature contest to see who could be less bothered by the other’s being an asshole.

DF gang

I’m cherrypicking some extreme examples of clashes and conflicts here to make a point, but the overwhelming majority of the time it was hugs and shots and merriment. I’m slowly getting over the constant shock of meeting such interesting and inspiring people everywhere I go, and gradually getting the idea that there is just an abundance of awesome people in the world.

The volunteers in the hostel were left to a game of International Big Brother, minus the cameras and the rules and in many cases even the ability to communicate with one another. I went through a ridiculous culturally rebellious phase in which I refused to do anything that someone had asked for indirectly — “oh, are you turning the fan on? You could leave it off if you want…” — and took everyone up on polite insincere offers — “Do you want some? Eat as much as you like!” — until I got tired of holding my middle finger up angrily to Mexican roundaboutness and frustratingly impractical ideas about what could and couldn’t be said to someone’s face.

But it was my first time flinging myself so far out past the edge of the cultural comfort zone I didn’t know I had. And because of that, sometimes I acted like a brat.

Insurgentes DF

Sometimes every little thing is confusing and difficult. Do I wait for the light to change or just walk out in front of these cars? Does the bike go before me, or after, and also if I’m riding a bike (which I did frequently) am I supposed to yield to cars, or is it kind of okay to weave between them, and what about one-way streets? These things are as much different as they are taken for granted everywhere people live.

Before 2015, the extremes of foreignness I had experienced were in Morocco and Bosnia, North Africa and the Balkans. But the roughly two weeks I spent in each country was never enough to do more than skim along the surface of the oceans of differences in daily life — in how family members relate, what time food should be eaten and how, in what contexts it’s okay to address strangers, the meanings of relative terms like ‘soon’ and ‘maybe’, how to act in someone else’s house — the differences that I dove into in Mexico.

I learned more about the world and its people during 8 months in Mexico than I think I learned in the 24 years that led up to it. That difference was something entirely, enticingly new to me, but I hardly noticed it until I found it screaming enraged Spanish threats at me from the bottom of the Hostel Home staircase at two in the morning from the mouths of two guests I’d been covertly instructed by the owners to kick out.

Estás in mi país cabrón!

“You’re in my country now, asshole.”

He was right: I was in his country, as much as a country can be said to belong to any particular person.

Mexico was fucking hard. I don’t regret it though. Round 1 in Latin America was as enlightening and catalyzing as it was challenging. Which is why I’m going back in two weeks.

What does it mean to be ‘global’?

At the end of 2015, I don’t think my identity has changed much; I just understand it better.

It confuses me intellectually when I read a headline like “20 dead after incident, including 3 Americans,” or when my president says that attacks in Paris are “an attack on us all”, while, earlier the same day, the related attack of similar scale on Beirut, a symbol of religious pluralism and ethnic coexistence in the Middle East, was, presumably, just an attack on Lebanon.

When I hear that violence or natural disaster have taken lives, I don’t particularly care how many of them were American or Dutch or Mexican. I don’t know any of those people who were killed — what do I have in common with a tech worker in Seattle that I don’t have in common with a single mother in the Peruvian Andes or a lawyer in Mombasa?

globalism

People who I care about, who I’ve spent meaningful time with, and who have shared parts of my life and theirs with me have come from all these places. Four years ago, only two or three of these countries would have been filled in.

The only practical way I can think of to try to demonstrate what I mean is with this map. At the end of 2015, I have friends from, off the top of my head, these 44 countries. If you add in the countries of origin of all my casual acquaintances from hostels or public transit and places where my eternally expatriating friends have lived, I think the total climbs to three digits. I have at least some small knowledge of the world cultures that live on this map, and emotional ties from casual to intimate in many of them. When I think of these countries, in my mind I see recognizable, relatable human faces.

This is what makes me feel like a member of global society: everywhere in the world, I stand to lose something.

DSCF4746Untitledpabloshowhostelfuckyeahgoodbyeme & tanjaDSCF3639

I’m still a human. My family in Middleburg and Eindhoven and my best friends in Leiden and Tallahassee and Mexico City all matter more and feel more thoroughly human to me than the other 7 billion strangers, because I’ve lived little parts of their lives with them, and they’ve lived parts of mine too, and I know that a lot of them feel lonely or have secret musical talents or spend every weekend volunteering at their church or have lost loved ones or have a stupid sense of humor that I hate, and they wonder about the future and think about finding love or saving the world or paying off their debt or losing weight or starting a family.

demos ser el cambio que queremos ver

“We should be
the change we want to see”

In 2015, I grew as a global citizen because I increased the number and depth of connections I have to the world at large, through meeting more of its people and learning one of its languages. I added more layers of local perspective that together make up a global one. 

2016 is looking bright, and global. Two weeks into the new year I’ll be flying to Bogotá, finally reaching the endpoint of my journey from NOLA to Bogotá, though via a route I never imagined. I can’t wait to find out what the next three hundred sixty-five days of language and travel have to teach me about the world.

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