I take a lot of long-haul trips, the kind where I’m trapped in the coach seat of a jetliner for a dozen hours or more. So I’ve learned to sleep on planes. Within a half hour of slipping the plastic off my airline-issued blanket, I’m dozing deeply, head nestled against my bright pink travel pillow.
I used to fight it. I found the whole experience unsettling. One minute, I’m in New York, closing my eyes on the snowy tarmac of JFK, and the next thing I know I’m surrounded by the desert heat and social restrictions of Abu Dhabi. It’s surreal, emerging as the lights get brighter and the rustling of people and baggage brings the cabin suddenly to life, unsure for a moment where or when I am.
The control freak in me took years to accept that I was OK being totally, vulnerably asleep in such a public place, under a blanket that wasn’t mine, with total strangers – and not ones I’d chosen to sleep with – reclining next to me.
At some point, though, it all shifted. And now I’ve fallen in love with this weird experience of drifting off in one culture and waking in a radically different one.
My long, airborne sleeps serve as a strangely physical reminder that I’m still me, no matter what circumstances or challenges or people may be swirling around me. I remain the same – same socks, same underwear, same strengths, same opinions – whether I’m drifting off above Pittsburgh or Paris or Penang.
The ground may have literally shifted under me, but that’s OK. I just need a few moments to shake off the haze, and then I’m ready to tackle whatever comes next – whatever the nature of the land into which I am emerging.
[pullquote]The world has been throwing a lot at us lately, and it’s easy to wonder just what happened to the planet we thought we lived on. It’s as if we fell asleep in one America and woke up in another.[/pullquote]
And that has me wondering, as an American, if my global travel experiences are one key to charting my course through the long haul of the coming years.
The world has been throwing a lot at us lately, and it’s easy to wonder just what happened to the planet we thought we lived on. It’s as if we fell asleep in one America and woke up in another.
As an American expatriate, I know how to explore other cultures and learn respectfully about the lives of strangers yet still remain fully myself, with my own beliefs and convictions. When I land in a new place, I look and listen and ask questions. I do research, pushing myself to learn the history of a society and understand the spoken and unspoken rules of people who are entirely unlike myself.
I’m realizing that it’s time to do that in America, as an American.
I need to do more research and more face-to-face exploration outside my comfort zone in my own country. I need to know my nation’s history better than ever and gather more knowledge of the nuances and details than I ever realized I’d needed.
As an American, I can take all those skills I use navigating an unfamiliar place and then channel that into refining my beliefs and making my own country a better place. And in the process of doing that – and encouraging others to do it – maybe we’ll find ways to make sense of it all. Because the sudden feeling that you’re in an unfamiliar place can be a good thing. That vertigo, the hunger to understand and be understood, pushes you to articulate who you are and what’s important to you.
Just like interacting with people in other nations helps us understand ourselves, perhaps one American striving to explain her views calmly but clearly – not to someone in a distant land, but to another American – will make a difference.
Wherever each of us goes, I wish us all safe passage and enriching travels. I hope you see the remarkable countries in Asia that I’ve been living in and exploring, and I also hope this year you go to states in America that you’ve never visited. I hope you talk to people who are nothing like yourself. I hope you fly or road-trip to the farthest reaches of our enormous nation and share a bit of who you are with every person you encounter. And I hope you take home a tiny piece of their world too.
I’m going to try to do the same. Maybe we’ll run into each other, dozing off together on a long redeye, as the beloved country we are grappling to understand – the place we believe in enough to fight for – stretches out beneath us.