The beginning of this year saw me joining the ranks of millions before me. You've heard this story before.
I disembarked at Suvarnabhumi, one of Bangkok's two international airports. I'd flown in on a one-way ticket and a single sparsely-packed backpack and no plan, bringing only the clothes I'd worn on the plane and the desiccated crumbs of expired daydreams.
Early on, I was inundated with tall tales of the cliched "life-changing personal experiences" one can replicate when they've earned money, even barely any money, within a first-world economy. These must-do's read almost like a curriculum off some deluded syllabus for the privileged-but-"conscious". As usual when confronted with surroundings completely alien to me, I felt blissed out, delirious, and expansive, which chased away my cynicism for a time.
As if Southeast Asia were merely Disneyland for spiritual capitalists and would-be anthropologists, other English-speaking travelers I met on the way would share their reviews, with a tone implying that they'd benevolently condescended to some quainter rhythm of life.
Bright-eyed gap-year kids obsessively hewing together some sort of "rite of passage" ritual had become the new face of white imperialism.
"Oh, it's so touching, the natives here, they have so little, and yet they give so much."
And, even more absurdly: "Yeah, we paid to go on this guided trekking tour to visit one of the indigenous hill tribes, but the experience...I don't know, it was just so inauthentic. So commercial, you know, like they just wanted our money."
My allergic reaction to these conversations quickly propelled me into an infinite spiral of self-questioning.
Sure. I could criticize the hypocrisy of paying for an "authentic" experience, but how exempt was I, really, from similar criticisms? Was I merely making social observations, or were these people reflecting something uncomfortable in myself? Was I just like them? Was that why they annoyed me so much?
You've heard this before, too: I'd meet travelers along the way who'd had similar revelations. They'd scoff at the "tourists" [differentiated from "travelers" in their minds] who would stay at nice hotels, hire chauffeurs, and delight in how cheap prostitutes were. Meanwhile, these "travelers" would loaf around in hostels run by ex-pats from their home country, stocked with kids who were so like-minded that they could discuss worldly matters for hours without anyone's perspective being challenged, investigate the cheapest ways to get high, and consult their smartphones or guidebooks every time they needed to make a decision on where to go, what to eat, which "life-changing" experiences to pay chump change for.
Well...I'm not doing any of those things. Lonely Planet never factored into the equation for me. I'm not going on elephant rides or staying in youth hostels run by foreigners. I didn't even bring my laptop!...But now am I doing the exact same thing as these "travelers"? Creating a separation and looking down on them because my own protocols and motives are somehow more "pure"? What's the motivation behind that? First-world guilt or self-loathing? What's the point? Should I not even be here?
And so on, ad infinitum.
Here's what I did realize, though.
Southeast Asia doesn't exist for middle-class westerners who want to visit countries where they can pretend they're rich. It doesn't exist to proffer salvation for privileged millennials desperate to find enlightenment, or at least desperate to transcend their dark fate to a life of relative ease by constructing arbitrary "challenges" and adventures for themselves, all the while maintaining the safety net granted to them at birth.
It also doesn't exist as a serviceable substitute for having actual self-esteem. Criticizing the practices of "tourists" while exalting your own does not fundamentally separate you from them. Coming home and shoving your supposed worldliness in the face of your less-traveled friends, while dismissing the richness and depth of their own lives [perhaps levels of depth your own life is lacking, if you only took an honest look], does not make you worldly.
Call yourself a globetrotter, vagabond, pilgrim, or gypsy all you want, but going to another country, or twenty, does not define you. You are not where you've been, what you've seen, or even what you've been a part of. You're in the how: how you've chosen to see your experiences, how closely you've looked, and at what.
It doesn't exist for us at all. It's a place, existing in and of itself. Where people live, existing in and of themselves. They weren't put there in order to teach us lessons about consumerism or compassion or inspire us towards Eastern thought. They've got their own thoughts and their own shit to do, and none of it has to do with us [well, except for those who are using our tourism to make their living].
With the right attitude, this realization extends both liberated detachment and connection.
And, most importantly, I learned that none of the lessons I learned have anything to do with Southeast Asia, though going there acted as a catalyst for me. As far as the traveler-vs-tourist division is concerned, I've seen the same behavior in ski town transplants and college frats: deep down, you're not sure if you belong there, and so you haze everyone who appears to belong there even less than you do.
But really, the questions were mine to ponder, the lessons mine to learn. Southeast Asia didn't exist for the sake of my personal development [though I couldn't have asked for a more enchanting backdrop].
Perhaps people like me don't belong in places like Lao: Westerners, perhaps wearing brand-name backpacks and wielding cameras that each cost more than a college-educated Laotian makes in a year.
Or, perhaps, all of us are fundamentally world citizens who can belong anywhere, if we only figure out how.
The agitated silt in my head is not going to settle into answers any time soon, if it ever does, but while I'm floating in spirals I just hope I'll remember how to keep asking.