The saying goes: When in Rome, do as Romans do. You know, to blend in when you’re in a new, unfamiliar place.
But is it really that simple?
When I arrived in Hong Kong for my internship four months ago, adapting to the culture seemed straightforward enough. I began to speak Cantonese more often, ate local food, and even learned to walk with my head buried in my cell phone like everyone else does.
However, as a proud Canadian, I still wanted to uphold the principles that make me who I am, so I continued being polite, considerate, and friendly. I held the door open for strangers, refused to jaywalk, and always said thank you.
Then I got in line at the bus stop.
When the doors opened, I waited patiently for the people in front of me to board. But by time time I got to the front of the line, I couldn’t make it on.
I couldn’t make it on because the person in front of me still had their backpack on their back, taking up an enormous amount of space.
Now, it really didn’t make that much of a difference because the buses operate ridiculously frequently in HK, but I still got pretty upset.
“How can people be so inconsiderate of others trying to make their way to work? After all, holding your backpack on a crowded bus to make more room was just the right thing to do.”
But I wasn’t going to let that change me. So when I got onto the next bus, I took my bag off and held it near my legs.
Then I almost fell flat on my face.
Turns out one of the reasons people don’t take their backpacks off on the train is because you need two hands to hold onto dear life.
That’s why, on my way home that day, I left my backpack on.
You might be wondering why this even matters. After all, it was just a small mistake made by someone still learning the ropes of a new city.
But I think this experience speaks to something more than just backpacks on the bus.
I think it speaks to the impact of travel.
I was so quick to judge people based on their actions that I didn’t stop to think why. By believing that I did things the “right way”, I closed my mind to better ways of doing things.
And here I thought I was being so open-minded by eating chicken feet.
Travelling and experiencing a new culture goes so much deeper than just enjoying its cuisine and observing how different everyday life is.
It’s about exploring those differences and really trying to understand why people do what they do.
And then – once you find those reasons – to look at yourself and decide whether it can apply to your own life.
You may find that it’s better to do things a different way, or you may find it absolutely ridiculous. Either way, you will have learned a little more about yourself and the world around you.
And when you start understanding why the world works the way it does, you begin growing into a global citizen, and the experience outlasts any impact made by the food you eat or Instagram pictures you take.
We often live our lives thinking everything around us is “normal”, so it’s easy to look at the differences and say, “that’s weird!”
It’s a lot harder to open your heart and consider that, maybe, we are the ones doing things wrong. ∎