Thinking about what it means to be a traveler–more specifically, what people think about my identity because I travel (a lot, and nonstop for now)–is enough to make my head spin sometimes. (Ideas, whether explicit or not, like: “Enjoy it before you settle down; Maybe you’re running from something; You don’t know what you’re looking for; You must be afraid of staying in one place.”) As you might have read in my bio, I dislike being put in a box, by society in general, and within conversations. As I’ve made more decisions (many of them spontaneous) to buy plane tickets and spend more days out of the U.S. than in it, I’ve thought, over time, about what my identity as a traveler is, and how that relates to my identity from… before I was zipping around the world.
The first change I noticed was my personality when meeting new people. At home, I could make friends through other friends, and didn’t have to exert a ton of effort to find social things to do. Even though I moved around the U.S. over the last decade (mostly within Wisconsin), when you live somewhere long enough, it’s fairly easy to build up a friend circle. Conversely, when you land in a foreign city and don’t know anyone, you have to learn to be outgoing, and fast. My introverted self, who at home could tag along with other friends, learned quickly to maximize interactions with nice people who could be fast friends in a new place. Since I’ve been traveling, I’ve learned the importance of making friends in hostels, on tours, on buses, at free tai chi classes, at a ukulele group… you name it. 🙂 I might always be inclined to go home early to have quality solo time, but I’ve learned that sometimes, the best outcomes come from just saying “yes” when someone extends an invitation your way.
The next big identity change due to perpetual traveling has been my lack of concern for superficial things. I was never big on buying stuff, but I did manage to build up a collection of scarves and mini skirts in many colors of the rainbow. 🙂 Now, I carry the basics with me: technological devices, good shoes for walking, sturdy bags, essential clothes, and not much else. I remember feeling apologetic about my mix-matched outfits on my first true solo trip, to Peru, feeling insecure about my less-than-planned-out appearance. And when I had a closet full of clothes in my apartment back home, with a plethora of sweaters, dresses, and jeans, I could still feel like I had “nothing to wear.” Now, I’ve got a backpack full of random clothes, most of which I brought specifically so I can donate them as I go and make my bag lighter.
In the U.S., so much of my confidence revolved around coordinating what I wore, wearing makeup, blowdrying my hair. It’s taken a long time to become comfortable throwing on clothes and appreciating the basic things I have, but this new version of myself can even (gasp!) go out at night with no makeup and whatever odd outfit I’d worn all day. (Sidenote: I promise I still shower, and still make it a point to not look like a total hot mess in public. :))
The last change is one that’s happened slowly, and is still a work in progress: my day-to-day attitude. Working full-time in the U.S., (from my experiences) you can be looked down on if you don’t appear to be a extremely hard worker, bordering on being a workaholic. So much pressure is placed on going above and beyond your job’s responsibilities, putting in extra hours, and even working (or thinking about work) on the weekends. (If you’re reading this and thinking, “so what,” talk to someone from another country for a different perspective on work-life balance.)
Even my creative-and-distracted, sometimes-resistant-to-authority work ethic fell into this trap, bringing work stress home with me, not learning how to breathe and chill out when coworkers’ stress rubbed off. Enter: New Zealand, land of “no worries!” I thought I had calmed down quite a bit by traveling for 6 months on and off before arriving here, but apparently, my fast-talking self, and expectations for quick, efficient responses still make me stand out as an American–when I look around at others who appear relaxed in their work environments, at the bank, supermarket, or cellphone repair shop (yeah, I’m currently phoneless, and trying to not act like a stressed out American because of it).
Like I mentioned, I’ve got a ways to go on this one, but I’m taking small steps. Breathing instead of letting the automatic “ahhhh” alarm go off in my mind. Yoga. Lots of yoga. Music. Podcasts. Reading. All the things that get shoved off as luxuries in American culture, I’m able to treat as my priorities for the time being. It’s a good lesson to learn: the importance of finding that (maybe impossible, but still sought after) balance between laziness and perfectionism. In Wellington, I’m still going after my goals like crazy (revising my memoir, playing original songs in public, getting radio airtime (whaaat?!). But the key for me will be learning to keep those quests in balance with appreciating the times during the day when I’m not going after something–but rather, taking time for myself to relax, to enjoy this temporary Kiwi life I’m so grateful to have.
Travelers: What changes have you noticed in yourselves since you’ve started traveling?