As I started to write this post, I realized I’m not the first one to explore the idea of “unlearning.” So, I Googled the term and it came back with 1,200,000 hits, with the first page of returns including references from Forbes magazine to Huffington Post.
Merriam-Webster’s secondly-listed definition “to undo the effect of: discard the habit of” is what I’ll discuss in this piece. I have long been aware of the dynamic of being burdened by the things we think we know or learned as a child but are now longer true.
Sometimes, it seems that being immersed in a new situation or environment may shake us out of a comfort zone or belief closely held. I have found that, with travel, both are true and accelerated.
As I began planning my travel life, I was inundated with the fears of my friends and family. Extreme stories about how I would be attacked and my money belt cut off me, concern over my having picked a purple suitcase over a plain black one – on and on.
I was also challenged by others that somehow my desire to travel or live overseas was unpatriotic, with one relative challenging me with “America is better.” This isn’t a contest.
These were people deeply stuck in perceptions that were fear-based. I am not a fear-based person, so although I was affected by these comments, I was able to move past them. My first phase of unlearning, as I traveled, was to unlearn the idea that other cultures and countries are automatically more unsafe than the United States.
My first memory of kindness overseas comes from a 6-hour bus trip in the Philippines. When we came to a rest-stop, I was totally unprepared to have to pay to use the toilet and to have to provide my own toilet paper. A tiny older woman saw my distress and rolled off a length from her own toilet paper roll and handed it to me without fanfare. The rest of my trip throughout SE Asia was sprinkled with simple kindnesses like this.
In Cambodia, I experienced my first and only moment of danger and distress – when I was being targeted by two men approaching me from different directions but obviously in league together. I was saved – quite literally – by a tuk-tuk driver (a motorized rickshaw, sort of), who I didn’t know, that rolled up in his vehicle and told me to jump in. As we took off, one of the men tried to get in with me, but the driver sped up. He told me the men were coming for me. I knew that, but was so happy he’d been there to whisk me away. Another kindness. He tried to refuse when I paid him for the ride home.
Except for this situation, I’ve been in “scarier” situations at home in the US, from walking through an iffy area of South Central Los Angeles at night to living in a rundown trailer park where my next-door neighbor was beat-up as I laid unaware, trying to sleep, He ultimately died from that beating.
So, I’ve unlearned that travel is unsafe. In fact, I have a dread of being wished “safe travels”, because, although I recognize the thought is well-intended, it carries a negative connotation that is nearly painful to hear.
There are any number of other “knowledge” I’ve discarded along the way, but perhaps the biggest is the idea of normal. There is no true “normal” – whether you live in the US or travel the world. Everywhere and everyone is different in some way and just about the time you think you have a good idea of what’s the norm in a situation, you are reminded that there is no normal.
Here’s a simple example. For the past month, I’ve had a terrible time trying to sleep at night – like normal people. I can sleep – but it’s usually during the day. This caused me great distress for about two weeks until I mentioned it to a gentleman from Chicago who lives here in Manzanillo for six months out of every year. He responded, “This is Mexico. Don’t worry about it.”
It’s laughable now, but it worked. I still don’t sleep easily at night, but I’ve relaxed about it and use the time wisely, like writing this piece at about 3 a.m.
Measuring everything with our previous knowledge base, a natural thing to do by the way, quickly dissipates when you are traveling internationally because other cultures do it differently. And you find yourself thinking, “Oh, that actually works better for me.” Or not. But either way, you now know that what you thought was absolutely true or the right way to do something isn’t necessarily. You’ve unlearned something you may have held onto for the rest of your life if you hadn’t traveled.
I treasure the unlearning I’m experiencing. It frees me up to be and think differently and kind of settle into something new, until I unlearn the next thing.
Unsettling? Maybe. Rewarding? Definitely.