How travelling made me remove my prejudices and fall in love with Asia

 

I will be honest. Asia, with the exception of Japan, was one part of the world I had very little interest in visiting. A lot of it was down to ignorance and some strongly set prejudices which I am ashamed to have held.

I assumed the whole place was just some dirty, overpopulated place full of people ready to pounce and pester me to buy this or that. I know that sounds incredibly ignorant and terrible but I’m not the first and certainly won’t be the last to have such images in my mind.

It probably didn’t help that I lacked (and still do) any knowledge of Asian history and culture to draw me to visit in the first place. At least with Europe, I knew all sorts of things about ancient Roman and Greek history, English history and I could rattle off plenty of famous landmarks like the Tower of Pisa, the canals of Venice, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, heck even the hills alive with the sound of music in Austria.

But alas in 2016, I made to Asia for the very first time. Believe me, I resisted. But there was a fitness bootcamp that I really wanted to try in Thailand at such a good price I couldn’t resist. I even tried finding similar bootcamps in other countries but I just kept getting drawn to the camp in Chiang Mai.

And ironically enough, after finally making it to Asia, I fell head over heels in love with the place.

On my first trip, I spent a day and night stopover in Singapore, followed by 10 days in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. A few months later I went to Bali in Indonesia. All three places were very different from each other as were my personal experiences in all these places.

Looking back, yes there were moments where you’d get constantly harassed by people wanting to sell you stuff and I had never been so disgusted by the amount of rubbish on the beaches as I was in Bali. But then again I’ve been harassed by pain-in-the-ass salespeople in Australia (even worse because they have your phone number) and I’ve seen beaches full of rubbish in New Zealand, a country that is known for its supposed pristine environment.

But the moments where I met so many kind-hearted, charming and hospitable people during my travels far outweighed the not-so-great moments where I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

And I had never felt as safe as when I was in Asia, unlike Europe where it felt like we were always on our guard to keep ourselves and our valuables safe.

So often I hear people echo the words “Why would I want to go there?” They could be talking about South-East Asia, South Africa, even the United States. As if the only place that is safe and matters in the world is their own little bubble. These are words that break my heart as I try to explain the value of travel – how it opens your mind up to new cultures, experiences and people. How travel makes you realise that people that might look different to you, eat different food and speak a different language are still people like you with their own struggles, hopes, passions and dreams. And how travel can make you truly thankful for all you have in your life.

And in these times of uncertainty, it is imperative more than ever we travel, that we expand our circles to include a more diverse range of people and learn from each other. For me, travel is something that can bring down barriers between people and remove deep-set prejudices, the way it did for me with Asia.

As Mark Twain puts it so perfectly:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all our lifetime.”

Sadly, those who read this blog are probably the ones who don’t really need to read this but nevertheless here is an account of some of my experiences visiting the following Asian countries and how my interactions and experiences helped me remove some deep-set prejudices and start looking at things from another point of view:

Singapore

This was my first introduction to Asia, albeit a very “Western” introduction with a fantastic public transport system and English being widely spoken. It was completely by chance that I ended up visiting. I was actually only meant to have a 2 hour stop over before carrying on to Chiang Mai to start my holiday, but my flight was cancelled and rescheduled to the next day which meant I had to stay overnight in Singapore.

Little India, Singapore - travelling removed prejudices I had against Asia
Exploring Little India in Singapore.

Without any intent to be offensive, it was a bit of a shock to be in a place where there are very few white people, which probably sounds odd given my brown skin. That was the first thing that came to my mind when I got on the train from the airport. I grew up in a very bicultural New Zealand where people were either white or Maori and multicuturalism wasn’t something I was accustomed to until I got to high school and university. I also spent 4 years living in Perth where immigrants are predominantly British or white South Africans. Hence the shock factor.

The people of Singapore were incredibly friendly. From the Chinese lady at the train station who tried to help me with finding my way out of the station even though she couldn’t speak much English, to the ladies at the Singapore Flyer who let me have my own carriage, to the man at the Indian food stall where I ate dinner and raced after me to give my change even though I insisted he keep it because I was leaving Singapore the next morning and didn’t want too much loose change.

While Singapore is considered western in comparison to many other parts of Asia, I was still enamoured by the diversity. From the skyscrapers and shopping malls you’d associated with the Western world, to the more run-down, colourful buildings and stalls in Little India. I would love to go back and spend more time exploring all the cultural diversity Singapore has to offer.

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

I met the most beautiful, sweetest people in Chiang Mai. The people seem to truly compliment the beautiful and peaceful lush green mountains and jungles of the area.

Even though I was part of a group holiday and stayed at a resort, due to being located out in the beautiful countryside of Mae Rim, we had a lot of exposure with locals.

I loved walking and cycling past all the locals in the mornings and greeting them with “Sawasdee ka”, a small bow and a friendly smile.

Muay Thai kickboxing training in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand - how travelling removed my prejudices towards Asia
Kickboxing with one of the friendly gym trainers in Chiang Mai. Friendly but tough!

I will never forget after my cycling accident, how much care the local guides put into treating my grazes and cuts, probably more than was necessary. I will never forget the lovely men at the kickboxing gym who had a good laugh when we’d try to kick a stick tied to a rope. I will never forget the security guard at a  hotel who went out on the street to stop the traffic so we could cross the road without fearing for our lives. I will never forget the reception at another hotel who humoured us by pretending to believe our story that we were about to check into their hotel but needed a taxi to get to the resort in Mae Rim first. I will never forget the woman who came to my rescue when a number of stray dogs approached me, ready to attack.

On the plane home, I tried to hold back the tears. It was the first time in my life I was actually sad to be leaving a place behind.

Chiang Mai is the reason why I want to go back to Asia.

Bali, Indonesia

Bali left me with very mixed feelings.

The Balinese are incredibly friendly and outgoing people, a stark contrast to my experience in Northern Thailand where the people are very shy. Perhaps it’s due to the greater amount of exposure to tourists and Westerners in Bali.

On our first morning in Bali, we went to a café and was served by a very talkative waiter who got excited when he learnt I was from New Zealand. Not sure why that’s so exciting when there’s so many Kiwis in Bali but there you go.

And when we went trekking up Mt Batur, we were given the most loveliest guide who took immense joy in taking endless photos of us and proudly showing pictures of his beautiful wife.

Mt Batur, Bali trekking. How travel helped me remove my prejudices towards Asia
At the top of Mt Batur in Bali with our incredible guide.

But there were a few incidents that made me seethe with anger and fear.

In Nusa Dua, away from the resorts, we ended up at some sort of market. We got a lot of stares from men, most likely due to the fact that we weren’t very well covered up. My friend told me the same thing happens in India, even if you wear jeans. I was angry and annoyed – why did we have to cover up to be seen as respectable? It was Bali after all, not India or the Middle East.

One of the guides who we went out snorkelling with also came on to me. I thought he was just being friendly. When he took me away from the others and told me he liked me, I clammed up, scared of what might happen next. All I said was “I want to go” and he apologised and took me back to the boat. I had never felt so upset in my life and ashamed because I instantly assumed the worst was going to happen to me because hey, this was Indonesia and Indonesia isn’t a safe place.

Yet at the same time, with all these incidents and past events like the Bali bombings, I still felt a lot safer in Bali than I had in places such as Milan and Prague.

Looking back now and putting myself in their shoes I completely understand their behaviour now. It’s the exact same thing us people in the Western world do to anyone wearing something different like a hijab, burqa or even a turban. To us Westerners, we take that as disrespect because they should be assimilating. And I suppose the men in Bali felt the same way about us and our lack of coverage.

Future Asian travel plans

Obviously Asia is a huge place and it would take a lifetime to really explore the entire continent. However places that are high on my list include the likes of Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

This is a very diverse list of countries with diverse religions, cultural values, customs and beliefs.

Educating myself on Asian heritage and culture

I have committed to reading a lot more books this year and as part of this, I want to start reading more books on Asian heritage and culture, especially South-East Asia.

A couple of books that have very recently caught my eye are Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies, both by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

I want to learn more about religions in Asia from Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism to Islam and even Catholicism in places such as the Philippines.

I want to better understand different governing structures in the different countries and the interactions between these countries.

I want to start listening to more music and watching movies from this continent.

It’s time to start opening up this little mind of mine.

 

As I raised earlier, we are now living in very uncertain times where we’re seeing a lot of hatred and fear towards people who are “different” or are a certain race or religion. Just look at what’s happening with people from Muslim majority countries being banned from travelling to the USA.

It may seem like just staying home where everything is “safe” is the best option and even I’ve contemplated not going anywhere near the USA for the next 4 years but I would say that now it is more important than ever to travel, to not have fear of being attacked, harrassed or prosecuted.

It is now more than ever that we need to start educating ourselves about what’s going on in the world and about other people, religions and cultures.

Travel and education are our strongest weapons against fear, hatred, prejudice and ignorance.

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