I’ve spent the past 6 months living in the third world-traveling on buses that don’t meet first-world safety standards, drinking insane amounts of coffee, and making myself a home with minimal resources.
But most importantly, I’ve done my best to integrate into a community of people with a culture so incredibly different from my own. And different in such a fashion, that I stand out like a sore thumb each and every time I step outside.
Every day is an effort. To leave the small sanctity of the home I’ve created for myself takes an extraordinary amount of courage. Leaving the place where I can wear what I choose, can cook whatever way I want, and can think in English.
It’s a dangerous business, walking out your front door. Ain’t that the truth.
You never know what you will face when you walk out on the street and instantly stand out. When you walk out on the street and have to be aware of your every movement, of any eye-contact you make, and to be ready to speak in a moment’s notice in a language that doesn’t come naturally. What kind of ideas are going through people’s heads? Do they see me as a hard worker, someone who doesn’t belong, a walking bank?
I’ll never know how people think of me, but I can affect the way that I present myself. My community will only think of me in a positive way if I give them a reason.
Yes, sometimes it is necessary to ignore people, and that doesn’t present the best image. Stopping to answer every hello would add hours to every day- but integrating into a community means engaging.
Engaging with the kids who yell ‘Ferenj*’ and ‘China’ because they don’t know any better. Because when you tell them your name, they not only say it to you every time you see each other, but they spread the information among their fellow partners-in-crime.
Engaging with the ladies doing chores out in front of their houses who stare at you. Because when you speak to them in the local language, the stares turn into smiles, and you might even get a chance to practice your language skills.
Engaging with the vendors at market. Because when they know you aren’t afraid to haggle, they won’t try to take advantage of you in the future. And just like the kids, they will spread that information amongst themselves.
Engaging with the waitresses, bunna** girls, and shop owners. Because when they get to know your character–that you honestly want to get to know them, learn their culture, and speak their language, they will have your back. Even the shoeshine boy who always tries to flirt with you and strikes out every time.
Engaging in the local style of dress. Because when your community sees you in skirts, or whatever the local fashion is, they will consider you ‘adapted.’ And that is always a good thing. Trust me.
Engaging with other ferenj* you see traveling through your neck of the woods. Because we’re all out of our comfort zones; it’s a necessity to find others with whom you can share your experiences. We don’t need to rank ourselves by our perceived sense of ownership or travel expertise. We simply need to humble ourselves enough to make a connection–if for no other reason than personal sanity.
Integrating into a community isn’t a quick process. It takes countless coffee breaks at the same places, countless repetitive conversations, and countless moments of courage. To be able to change a community’s perceptions of you, requires an extraordinary amount of effort. But in the end, the effort pays off, and the original connections you made can spread to others in the community, even people with whom you’ve never made contact.
And hearing your name from someone you’ve never met, means that something you’re doing is working. And those little moments of success are what you need to keep stepping out your front door.