How to feel like an infant (in a good way)


I approached the packed little restaurant with interest and apprehension. I say “little restaurant,” but it was really just a hallway with a kitchen and some chairs shoehorned into it.

I tried to place an order via the universal language of wild gesturing, but the cook/cashier/waiter pointed me toward a machine. I scooched over to the machine, avoiding other diners with my bag as best as I could. It appeared to be a machine where you put in money, pushed a button corresponding the meal that you wanted, and got a ticket. I watched a man do this, and he gave a ticket to the guy behind the counter. I stepped up and looked at the machine in detail.

All the signage, all the text, was completely in Japanese.

I wish I knew the kanji for "boiled eyeball."
I wish I knew the kanji for “boiled eyeball.”

Temporary illiteracy for fun and profit

An interesting effect of traveling to foreign places is that you can be rendered mostly helpless. In a place where you don’t know the language, the alphabet, or even the customs, the most basic of life’s operations become a challenge. Finding food that you can (and want to) eat can be time consuming. Finding a room for the night can be a real challenge. Figuring out how to get from where you are to where you want to go can take all day.

But I feel like this helplessness is actually one of the benefits of foreign travel: it de-automates us. Usually we don’t think about food and shelter; we may not know the specifics, but we know we’ll figure it out (I sincerely hope that it’s never too much of a concern for you). But in a foreign country, bereft of any more than your gut, nothing is automatic. Even figuring out how to pay for something (tip or no tip?) requires thought and consideration. Being illiterate and barely able to make your way feels like it harkens back to when we were infants, reliant on others for our basic needs.

Now granted, this de-automation comes at a price. There is a reason why we as humans have gotten desensitized to common things. Imagine if whenever you stepped outside, you noticed absolutely everything, from the steps you stood on, to the grass in between the stones on the path, the color of the grass, the fact that they are sticking up not down, how gravity works, the brightness of the sun… You wouldn’t get very far.

But sometimes, a little taste of that sensitization, of seeing things as new again, can be pleasant, or if not pleasant, useful. To remember what it’s like to be able to actually see things as opposed to glossing over them, that is a skill worth cultivating. When we really notice things, it gives us a chance to appreciate them in a way that we don’t normally.

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I can see for kilometers and kilometers

Being on the road, standing in front of a ticket machine with completely alien characters, it offers you a chance to step back and wonder at so many things: how strokes of a pen can create pictograms that translate to notions in our brain; how it’s possible for many different pictograms to have been created all around the world to mean approximately the same thing; and how amazing it is that you are thousands of miles from home, inside quite unfamiliar surroundings, and knowing that you’re going to be just fine.

The hotel you find yourself at in the evening may not be as pleasant as your mother’s arms, but it’s better than nothing.

But enough about me: Do you find the challenges of foreign travel to be useful? How so?

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