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Friday, July 27, 2012

This post is to make up for one I missed

I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between travel, tourism, and "settling" (for a lack of a better word).

Let's start with definitions, because I really like to share my own opinions of the definitions of certain words.

Travel: visiting a place that is foreign to you, with the intent to learn more about the area, the history, the people, the culture etc.  A mix of leisure, discovery, adventure, and responsibility.

Tourism: visiting a place that is foreign to you, with the intent to relax, "see the sights," get some great pictures to post on Facebook, and maybe learn about the area and it's history (but only if you're into that kind of stuff).  A mix of leisure, adventure, and, quite often, pampering oneself.  Tourism also tends to treat places as if they are a number of landmarks and activities: once you've "checked off" a certain amount of these landmarks and activities, you have finally "experienced" a certain area.

"Settling": longer than both travel and tourism. Living in a place that is foreign to you, with the intent to learn more about the area, the history, and people, etc.  Also with the aim to "fit in" within the community--to learn cultural norms and be able to communicate appropriately.  A mix of discovery, adventure, a lot of responsibility, and even more hands-on learning.

As a field study student, I have tried to make my time in England more akin to settling, and less like travel and tourism.  Although I acknowledge that I am only settling in England for three months, which is a rather short time, I have tried to learn as much about how to function within the culture and its traditions as I can, as if I were living in England for longer. 

Settling in a place is an interesting phenomenon because it has a sort of permanence which has a greater effect than travel or touring.  When you are a tourist or a traveler, you are constantly functioning as an outsider.  You know the experience is very temporary, and although you might want to learn more about the culture you are visiting, it's only for a short while.  But when you're settling, you change to adapt to the culture (if you're smart).  It becomes part of every thought.  You constantly watch others, learning from them, analyzing their actions, trying to understand what they're telling you about their culture, and comparing it to how you act.  It becomes your mission to understand others: to understand their humour (which may seem a little biting), or their opinions of beauty (which may seem a little old-fashioned), or even the way they pass someone when they walk down the street.

While tourism and travel are glimpses into another world, settling is living in that other world.  As I look forward to coming home in August, I remember what it was like to come home last August from my previous field study.  I found that most of my friends and family treated my settling in England as touring.  They asked me things like, "did you go see Big Ben?" and "are Londoners rude?" and "did you eat a lot of fish and chips?"  My favorite question was "you went to London? how was it?"  While this question is fine for describing a one or two week London vacation, it's extremely inadequate for describing my settling experience.

Yes, I did go to London.  How was it?  Well, if you want the honest answer, it was wonderful, terrifying, beautiful, edifying, destructive, brilliant, boring, torturous, difficult, hilarious, depressing, inspiring, eye-opening, thought-provoking, money-draining... and the list goes on.  It contained some of the most painful experiences that I've ever had.  It taught me independence and preparation.  And it was rewarding beyond what I ever expected.

But typically, my friends don't want to hear that version.  What they really would like to hear is, "it was fun.  It was really rainy, though, and I'm glad to be back in the sun."  And so I tell them that, when what I really want to say is, "after three months of eating, breathing, sleeping, learning, and living London, of trying to communicate and understand the culture, I sometimes feel more English than I do American."

The first few weeks back home feel great, but they're always the hardest.  It's shutting the book of your London life and putting it back on the shelf so you can reopen the old one and get back where you left off.  But you're never back where you left off.  There's always the disjunction of lost time and lost experiences.  How could I explain my love for old churches to someone who has never been outside an LDS meetinghouse?  How can I explain my fascination with the English and their culture to someone whose only interaction with the English are through Sherlock, Dr. Who, and Downton Abbey?  How can I explain the peacefulness of wandering through a muddy marsh in the rain to someone who thinks of London as Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Harrod's, and the Olympics?

It is hard for most people to understand that I came to London not to tour or to travel, but to settle and live.  They don't understand why I didn't just see all the sights in a week or two and then move on to Paris or Barcelona or Rome.  And I wonder if they understand how odd it feels to be in two cultures at once: for the past few months, I've been an American in London, and in August, I will be a Londoner in America.  Tourism can have an effect on a person, travel can go a step further and change them, but settling takes your life out of your hands, shakes it around for no good reason, and then hands it back to you without explanation.  And when I return to the States, I expect to feel shaken.  I expect to feel uncomfortable, simultaneously at home and a stranger.

But I think there is something to be learned from being uncomfortable, something that you learn about yourself and your country and your culture that you can't learn unless you go out into the world and let it shake your life around.  After London, I don't want to be completely comfortable with my culture's ideas on gun control, public transportation, homelessness, city planning, homosexuality, patriotism, political parties--I could go on for pages, but I'll refrain.  I respect my culture, and I respect English culture.  But my field study in England has given me a chance to contemplate these two radically different cultures, live them, analyze them, and use them to open my mind to the possibilities of change and improvement.  This is an opportunity which few people have, an opportunity which would greatly improve our own culture if more of our citizens could live abroad and take time to understand both the positives and negatives of other cultures.

Unfortunately, most people opt for the tourism route, because it's a lot easier to pay thirty bucks for a look inside Buckingham Palace than it is to carefully study and consider the inner workings of English culture.  But for those of us who want to learn more about London than simply where the best fish and chips is served, there is a magnificent opportunity awaiting.