On Travel

By Jeremy Capello Lee

Caravane marco polo

Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan (Scanné de Coureurs des mers, Poivre d'Arvor). Public Domain
For this purpose mixing with people is wonderfully appropriate. So are visits to foreign lands...[to learn] of the humours of those people and of their manners, and knocking off our corners by rubbing our brains against other people's. --Michel de Montaigne, On Educating Children

Before submitting my enrollment deferral to Notre Dame, I remember deliberating whether taking a gap year would be worthwhile. On the application, I pitched the nine-month trip to East Asia as an opportunity to improve my poor grasp of Korean and deepen my understanding of family history. I concluded my proposal with the hopes that this sojourn would be a lesson in the "social dynamics of Asia," while giving me time to chart out academic and career goals.

Rereading the application six months after my year abroad, I doubt I would take time off today if the best reason for traveling was to develop a healthy "global perspective." And though my time studying, traveling, and volunteering in South Korea was well spent, I still struggle to precisely articulate what advantages my travels have conferred.

Why exactly is travel hailed as such a crucial and formative experience? Trawling through online blogs and guidebooks, I've found, reveals the same axiom chopped and rehashed: travel enriches because it exposes you to foreign culture, thereby broadening the mind. While it is difficult to argue with this logic, it does very little to explain why.

To begin examining this question, Michel de Montaigne's thoughts on travel provide a good starting point. In his essay on education, Montaigne highlights the utility of traveling; it is simultaneously a linguistic, anthropological, and intellectual exercise, which, like learning a new language, is best done before the brain has lost its flexibility. He clarifies that the aim of travel is not to accumulate worthless knowledge, in his words, "the rich embroidery of Signora Livia's knickers" (172), but to complement one's education through comparative study.

With Montaigne's vote of confidence, this essay then will evaluate what makes travel so enriching. First, to enumerate travel's linguistic, anthropological, and intellectual benefits. At the most immediate level, travel fosters both linguistic and cultural competence.

The stakes are naturally higher when using English is not an option - giving greater incentive to develop proficiency in the foreign language. It is far more efficient to learn Russian by bartering with vegetable vendors and unscrupulous taxi-divers in Moscow than it is by memorizing flashcards in a cozy classroom. At home, you risk a poor quiz score if you fail to study. In Russia, you risk a week's budget.

One day of travel is a far better teacher than even a week with the best armchair guide. It is one thing to enjoy a good book exploring the quirks of Japanese society. It is a different matter altogether to wander Tokyo's sinuous and neon-lit alleyways in search of a restaurant your friend recommended, and, after having reached its sliding doors, receive stares of disapproval for not having removed your shoes at the door.

Navigating through these differences in cultural etiquette means a more respectful traveler, and provides the basis for deeper cultural study. It is foolish, after all, to profess cultural competency without first recognizing that kissing a stranger is standard greeting in Rome and public indecency in Dubai.

Through sustained time abroad, one eventually develops an understanding of the country through sociolinguistics; much can be gleaned from a culture in observing how its people use language. I have found, for example, that even the more advanced Korean textbooks fail to explain the intricacies of formal and informal speech found in the language. Depending on the relationship of speaker and listener, a perfectly grammatical phrase may be insulting in context.

As an English speaker who greets professors and peers alike with a simple "Hi," navigating the linguistic strictures of the Korean language was challenging. Upon awaking, I learned to address my great-uncle and aunt using the most formal tense. In class, I conversed with friends in the standard polite form, before switching to the more informal tense as we grew closer. After school, I would shuffle between all three of these forms depending on whom I met. This isn't even considering the particular form used at work, or the myriad substitutions in vocabulary depending on the subject to whom one refers.

The agglutinative nature of Korean adds another layer of intricacy. By altering the verb ending in Korean, a speaker can subtly shape the tone of a phrase. Without enough context in conversation, it can be difficult for a foreigner to determine whether the remark is positive or negative. Unfamiliar to these nuances, I struggled to parse whether my relatives were advising me which subway station to take, or whether they were scolding me for arriving late to dinner after missing the last train home.

Difficult as it may be, grasping a language's sociolinguistic nuances provides a foundation to deeply appreciate foreign culture - and better understand one's own. My initial discomfort in the language, for example, was gradually replaced by an understanding that Korean culture is fundamentally different from the one in which I grew up.

While in Seoul, I recall a lecture given by a prominent writer who explained that Korea's hierarchic language structure reflected its strong connection with the Confucian tenets of filial-piety and respect towards authority. In a country, he explained, where even the king's eating utensils were labeled distinctly from others', it is understandable that Koreans today still address their elders with deference.

Shortly before I left the country, my great-uncle recounted his time growing up in a nation divided after the Korean War, when food was scarce and the economy was all but destroyed. How then, did South Korea become one of the world's economic powers in less than two generations? It was through the collective efforts of an entire nation, determined to rise from its abject state, that accelerated Korea's growth, he said.

Reflecting on great-uncle's words, I wonder whether South Korea would have grown so quickly if everyone had chosen to pursue their own happiness, autonomy, and creative liberty instead. Would the American dream have resonated under the autocratic leadership of Park Chung-hee in the 1970's?

Perhaps Koreans' cultural eschewing of individuality reflects their aversion towards the instability and poverty they experienced in the middle of the 20th century. In the struggle to modernize rapidly, collectivism was reinforced; Korea grew because everyone was compelled to keep his mouth shut and head down, as great-uncle recounted.

In this light, I realize that cultural difference, while frustrating at times, is a mirroring of the historical circumstances that a people has faced. I better understand why my great-uncle, a retired professor who grew up scrounging for food, argues that financial stability and education are of the utmost importance. My cousins' attending nightly cram school in the hopes of passing grueling college entrance exams make sense in a society where failure to attend a top university is shameful.

Throughout my stay, these stories shaped my impression of Korean culture, and more importantly forced me to admit that my own beliefs were rooted in Western mores, which prize individuality over collectivism, creativity over hierarchy. At times, I found myself reevaluating whether the Korean ethic was compatible with my own, or perhaps superior to it.

I believe this transition from anthropological study of culture to personal reevaluation of cultural values is the most important aspect of travel, and only happens after extended time abroad. Montaigne points to this fine distinction when he argues that travel not only provides an anthropological account of the customs of nations, but also challenges our own ideas "by rubbing our brains against other people's" (172). Implicit in this comparative act of evaluating cultural values is the possibility that even one's firmly held beliefs should be questioned.

Pitted between Korean and American educational systems, I wouldn't trade a liberal arts education for one built upon memorization and hyper-competition. Faced with the choice between a career that guaranteed financial stability but not much else or one that guaranteed autonomy, I would likely pursue the one that allowed for more creativity rather than less.

But perhaps it is wise to also consider my great-uncle's story, one of countless others' contributing to the miracle on the Han River. Perhaps there are circumstances that demand the sacrifice of one's pursuit of autonomy in the interest of something greater. Perhaps the phrases "follow your passion" and "you are unique" do not simply arise from American idealism, but also stem from a philosophy of entitlement that rejects self-sacrifice and authority. There may not necessarily be a right answer; still it is important that I continue to ask these questions.

I believe that this process of comparing values is central to Montaigne's essays. Montaigne's interaction with foreign culture serves not only as an anthropological exercise, but also as a way to critically evaluate the culture of Europe - and his own beliefs - at the time. Written in an era of hypocrisy and horrible violence among culturally similar people, Montaigne's essays stand out because they are strangely tolerant of foreign culture. It is difficult to argue that he developed this tolerance solely by dint of virtue or scholarship, without having first grappled with divergent customs and culture.

Similarly, I believe that without travel, the process by which one is forced to cope with a differing culture than one's own, it is difficult, if not impossible to develop the awareness to evaluate one's own cultural standards in the search of a better, more just system.