The world is everlasting
Put dirtballs in your pocket,
Put dirtballs in your pocket,
And take off both your shoes.
’Cause people are just people,
People are just people,
People are just people like you.
– Regina Spektor, “Ghost of Corporate Future”
Travelling opens up a literal world of experiences and opportunities. Book a window seat on a train and picturesque scenes of flowers growing at the base of a jagged mountain or a field of turbines harnessing wind for electricity will be seared into your memory forever. Oftentimes, however, travelers expect people to be so different from place to place based on cultural stereotypes. While traditions and societal norms may differ, there are far more similarities between people – regardless of geography, language, and culture.
The sights and sounds of seven billion
New Yorkers are rude, Germans are cold. If you have any of these ‘all [insert group of people here] are [insert trait]’ notions, cast them from your mind this instant. Stereotypes about entire populations’ personalities like this are so pervasive and dangerous. When you travel to a place with concrete expectations about how a people will act, you’ll inevitably miss out on good experiences and you will be unpleasant to have as a travel buddy. Are some New Yorkers rude and some Germans cold? Sure, but that’s because some people are stupid and cold. Think about your hometown. Is everyone there the same? Surely not. No one lives in Pleasantville.
Even “positive” stereotypes will cause harm because it will make getting to know people on a personal basis difficult. We have it in our heads that Japanese people are so polite and shy, which is often the case but dig deeper and you’ll find a rainbow of personalities like any society has. I went to Japan with a theatre group right after university. A few Japanese actors went along with us, including two young women. For many months, we saw them as stereotypical quiet and polite Japanese women. Then one day we spotted them smoking weed together and giggling. They were polite, but they weren’t dolls on display – they were hip and alive. In a word: teenagers. I think we all regretted not getting to know them better.
Globalisation and shared values
Unless you visit a cult compound where people are raised from infancy without outside contact, people will generally like similar things. People like good food and entertainment. We may disagree on what constitutes ‘good’, but that’s a matter of personal taste more than anything nowadays. Due to globalisation, it’s much easier for someone in London to get interested in K-pop dance hits or someone in Seoul to be a Benedict Cumberbatch fan.
Globalisation and mass technology create a world where people are interconnected and ideas spread rapidly. Things are not as specialised as they once were: you can find Austrian cafes in London, Portland doughnut shops in Taiwan, and Spanish tapas in Dubai. Since the 1970s, fusion restaurants have reigned – and the culinary world is far from the only fusion fans. World styles of art, music, and film have all collided; you can experience hip-hop everywhere from LA to China and Bollywood in Hollywood.
Shared values are important too. Most people you’ll encounter will be family-oriented. The layout of the families may differ, but almost all of us have some sort of familial structure. Friendship will also be easy to spot. Believe me, you will see teenagers sitting in fast food restaurants and gossiping whether you’re in Iceland or Argentina.
Even our dreams are similar. Humans all want safety, comfort, and happiness. Emotions like love, sadness, and fear belong to all humanity, not only Eastern or Western. It may be something you never think of, but if you go into local shops around the world from Sydney to San Diego, you’re likely to see lottery machines and ticket sellers. The dream of winning the US Powerball lottery and getting rich quick seems to be a global fantasy. Likewise, there are stories around the world of people becoming ‘stars’ and a culture of celebrity worship in many countries. Hollywood is not confined to LA anymore.
Humans all have a story. No one has shown this better in the past several years than Brandon Stanton, the creator and photographer of Humans of New York. He’s done a marvelous job of showing that people are people anywhere you go in his global series this summer with stops in Pakistan and Iran. Some do amazing things, some are more understated. People commenting on his Facebook page are filled with awe at how similar we all are – and perhaps a bit of shame that this realisation and humanisation took so long.
Travelling is fascinating because you get the chance to meet people who are open to having conversations and you learn a lot about these individuals’ stories. When you travel, make sure to bring a notebook and collect these stories, not stereotypes.