Playing Tourist at Home and Abroad

Growing up, I always wanted to be one of those free spirits, traveling the world and finding fulfillment in the incomparable experience of contact with new people and cultures. Travel is a wonderful thing – it opens your mind, it forces you out of your comfort zone, and it enables you to learn and grow in the most enjoyable way.

I have been doing quite a bit of traveling recently. I’ve gone far out of my comfort zone, learning new customs and languages and seeing sites I couldn’t even dream of before seeing more of the world. The United States can claim some of the most beautiful nature and interesting culture, and I am proud to be an American. But even so, I had never seen anything that compares to the Sierra Nevadas of Andalusia. I have seen some lovely churches in the states, some quaint and some spectacular, and yet I must say that nearly every city and town in France boasts a cathedral more spectacular than any you can find in the much-younger Americas.

Not to mention these incredible castles – it’s no wonder that Disney based some of their castles on these French sites – like the island-surrounded-by-quicksand Mont Saint-Michel:

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It is humbling to realize how little of the world I had seen before, and how little I have seen even yet. It has reinvigorated my desire to travel, to experience, to learn and grow.

But travel can also be scary.

You can find plenty of people that speak english in most countries nowadays, but the language barrier can be daunting nonetheless. You feel stupid. You often get odd looks from people, and if you’re a bit anxious like me, that can convince you that everyone knows that you have no idea what you’re doing. It can feel like you don’t belong, and for most of us, belonging is one of the most important feelings.

Besides language, even the most similar cultures have drastic differences in lifestyle and attitude. You’re never going to visit a new country, or even a new part of a country, without having to adapt to a new schedule, a new palette, a new everything. And when you inevitably demonstrate your unfamiliarity, you will often out of place again. That said, these looks you get, these anxieties you have, are rarely if ever as bad as you think: people might notice that you’re not from there, but rarely will they genuinely be judging you so harshly – even if you are a loud, uncultured American like myself.

So it has always been hard for me to accept being a tourist. Like all of us, I want to belong – I want to be a part of the place I’m in, regardless of where I’m from. Foreign visitors are usually noticeable – you see them in your hometown (if you live somewhere touristy, as I did for a number of years) with their fanny-packs and their cameras, walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk and giggling…a part of you knows that they’re having so much fun, that this memorable experience will stay with them, but at least for me, I have to squash down a feeling of superiority. This is my place – look at you, so excited about the path I walk to class every day. Look at you, not belonging. It’s a terrible way to think of people, but I think we all do it at times.

Nevertheless, I have to accept being the tourist. Even playing tourist in my own town – how many years did I live in Washington, DC, and yet only ever visited the Smithsonian a handful of times? There’s so much to see. When you live in a place that people travel great distances to visit, you have an obligation to take advantage of those things. Your hometown can easily become absorbed by your day-to-day: this is where I work, this is where I go to school, where I eat lunch and brush my teeth. This isn’t where I go out and learn and enjoy.

But shouldn’t you be learning and enjoying the most in the place where you’re most comfortable, in the place where you spend the most time? I guarantee you, however long you’ve lived in your current city or your hometown, you do not know everything there is to know. You have not visited every interesting site, restaurant, or brewery.

It’s important to travel. New places will force you to have new experiences, and those experiences will often be much more different from any you could have at home. But it’s equally important to truly understand and experience your own culture – because it is so comfortable and familiar, you probably take it for granted. There may be aspects of it that you’ve never experienced or considered, and even those aspects you are most familiar with, you may never have truly contemplated the nature of it, the way in which it shapes you and those around you.

So I encourage you to travel. I encourage you to experience. And above all, I encourage you to approach every place and culture with that discerning eye, to look for and consider what makes this place unique, what makes it the way it is.

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Sunday Sads: The Anesthetic Effect of Netflix or, How Shitty Internet Changed My Life

Netflix (and its ilk) can have serious detrimental effects to your mental health, especially for those who have pre-existing mental health problems.

I should start by saying I love and use Netflix all the time. And Amazon Prime. And Hulu. And the vast collection of thousands of movies and tv shows that my dad has copied from VHS to DVD over the years (don’t tell the FBI).

This isn’t going to be a lecture about ‘getting outside and living your life’, ‘kids these days are always plugged in’, ‘you need to be falling out of a tree at least once a week’, or whatever else people are saying about young people nowadays. But it is important to be aware of the causes and effects of what I’ll call ‘chronic Netflix binging’. For simplicity’s sake I will generally use ‘Netflix’ to refer to any method of binging content, (yeah, Youtube and Vine (RIP) count too).

Netlix isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful thing: it facilitates social interactions (and no, I’m not just talking about Netflix and chill), helps you unwind after a long day, and provides easy access to the pop culture that a large portion of our daily discussions and references consist in.

But it’s also an anesthetic.

Many of you probably already know what I’m talking about. When I’m down in the dumps, there are tons of things that could make me feel better, both during and after: reading, writing, crafts, (sometimes) socializing, actually doing the work that’s causing me anxiety…but those things are difficult. Watching a 22-episode season in one sitting might sound difficult, but it’s mindless. It lets you shut off, and when your mind is anxious or upset, that’s exactly what you want. It’s the path of least resistance.

I sometimes sit down with the intention of opening up a book to relax – because reading is relaxing, and healing, and pretty much any positive adjective I could think of – but find myself opening up my computer instead. Now, sometimes shutting off really is what you need – after a long day of classes or work, when your mind is tired, a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is just the thing. But when you open up Netflix to escape your negative thoughts, your fears and anxieties and deadlines, you are only hurting yourself.

You are hurting yourself because it works. It numbs you. It makes it all go away – while you’re watching. But when you’re done, or even in the 15-second countdown between episodes, it comes back. And it comes back worse. Your brain says “what are you doing? I’m telling you something is wrong. I’m telling you you need to fix me. Why aren’t you listening?”

Sometimes that voice in my head just perpetuates the cycle. Rather than dealing with my anxieties, whether by taking care of the cause or doing something that genuinely relaxes me, I say “no, brain. Quiet now. I’m pretending you don’t exist.” And I watch another episode to avoid the guilt. And then I feel worse, so I watch another episode to avoid dealing with that.

It got so bad for me a few years back that there were periods during which I slept only every third night or so. Not because I was out all night, not because I was going wild or having a psychotic episode, but because I could only let myself put away the numbing agents when I was sure that I would fall asleep immediately. I was stuck in this vicious, life-ruining cycle of needing to turn myself off.

It’s a strange sort of cognitive dissonance, knowing full well that reading even a light, fun fantasy novel would relax me and make me feel better, and still choosing the option that would leave me tired but wired, and even more anxious than before. It was the path – or rather, the cycle – of least resistance, and it took an incredible amount of self-control to form the habits to break it. To turn my computer off an hour before bed. To log out of Netflix until the paper was done. To take my journal outside where there’s no wifi, or to a different room with no computer.

But with some work, and admittedly the help of internet so shitty it was impossible to watch anything at home, I’ve found ways to genuinely help myself feel better. Not just to turn off the bad feelings for 42 minutes.

Now maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Jesus, do people really have that unhealthy a relationship with Netflix?” Maybe you’ve only ever used Netflix to take a quick break, to unwind a little, to hang out with friends or lovers. If so, good on you. But I encourage you to think about – maybe even make a list of – the things that leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, that help you meet your goals and boost your motivation, that make you feel good about yourself. Then make a list of the things that drain your energy, that leave you with regret, that waste your time. Where does Netflix really fall for you?

I’m not saying delete your account. I’m not even saying don’t watch Netflix every day. I’m just saying that there are good reasons and bad reasons for watching Netflix, good times and bad times to do it. If you’re aware of those, if you can structure your life so that Netflix is just an aid in your enjoyment rather than a crutch to stop yourself from needing to think or feel, then carry on. If not, if you’re like me, I encourage you to make a few changes.

Don’t stop watching. Just think before you watch.