A single phrase, commonly heard across Southeast Asia, sums up the biggest lesson that six years on this continent taught me: “Same, same, but different.”
After my first dream trip to Europe and the consequential discovery of travel’s possibility, it didn’t take me long to figure out how to venture even further afield. Within a few months I had signed up for a summer exchange program in China.
At 19, I’d not yet been anywhere in the “developing” world, I’d never heard the phrase “culture shock”, and I had no idea at all what to expect in China in 1994 (way before the Olympics and Starbucks came to Beijing). To say I was fresh-faced and unprepared is an understatement.
My very first memory in Asia was the van ride from the airport to the town where I’d be spending the summer. For the first hours we made our way through endless rice fields across the rural countryside. I stared out the window in amazement spotting farmers in bamboo hats and water buffalo. It was all one big, wondrous moving picture. And then it got dark.
The sun set, the sky turned black, and we kept driving into the night. Oddly, however, the driver didn’t turn on the headlights. We were flying through the streets into the pitch black, and every minute or two the driver would honk the horn to let people (and presumably the water buffalo) know he was on the road.
Every few minutes he’d flash the hi-beams to make sure the road was clear ahead, but apart from those split seconds, the stars and moon were our only light. I shut my eyes and prayed that we get there alive, and chalked this up as kind of dangerous—and insane.
In the next days, I quickly realized that most things I would experience on my first trip to China felt insane to me. The things I was served for dinner—what? The hole in the ground that was the toilet—no way! The way everyone spit on the ground in public—eew! The number of students crammed into a dorm—how do they live like this? And the endless search and bargain for every day necessities—really? Where is the mall?
Everything was different, I was overwhelmed, and my western mindset immediately went into overdrive considering how I could fix all of these obviously broken things.
As a new traveler, I had not yet acquired the skill to see “same, same but different”, in what appeared to be a total logic free zone.
I didn’t master this skill on that trip to China. In fact, I can’t even say that I’m always able to maintain this perspective after having lived on the continent for many years.
But Asia has taught me a few lessons about viewing the world through the wisdom of eyes that strive to recognize the same and appreciate the different.
1. Look at the intention rather than the action
While I’ll never be a fan of driving across rural China (or anywhere else) in the pitch dark without headlights, it turns out the driver had a reason.
Headlights in rural China in 1994 were very difficult to replace. By using his light sparingly and relying on his knowledge of the road, the driver was ensuring that he’d have some light long term. His intention was to drive safely–even when it felt like the most dangerous thing in the world to me.
When we’re new to a culture (or even a confusing situation in our own culture), there are always things happening behind the scenes we aren’t seeing. Rather than observing actions we don’t understand and immediately filing them under “These People Are Nuts,” ask some questions, discover the intention. You’ll be able to respond with understanding rather than react in frustration.
2. Compare to learn, not to teach
It is not our job to fix everything that appears to be broken. In fact, everything we think is broken, is not. It’s amazing what we’ll learn by approaching situations in life and travel as students rather than know-it-all’s.
Worldview operates similarly to two people in their early years of marriage—we all think we’re the one who is right in most situations, and that life would function better if the other person would just adapt and do things our way.
What if we compared cultures and points of view in search of good instead of gaps? We’d probably recognize a lot of what make us the same, same- the need for love, family, opportunity, acceptance, well-being, and dignity.
I’m pretty sure we’d make all of our worlds better.
3. Be open to view your own world as an outsider
My first year in Asia, I spent a lot of energy fixating on all the things that were different and unusual to me. It wasn’t until I had been living there for a while that I finally realized that most people around me thought I was actually the most different and unusual one.
The ability to see yourself and view your own world through the eyes of others is eye opening. You may actually realize that many of the things you do may not actually make sense.
If you’re new to this concept and want to practice seeing your own world from an outside perspective, start a conversation with a taxi driver. By some strange universal law, most subjects that are taboo at dinner tables around the world are completely appropriate in taxis—politics, religion, relationships, and everything the driver believes is wrong with your country.
I used to think it was only other countries that were absolutely bizarre, and now I’m beyond convinced that the U.S. is pretty bizarre in its own right. (If you don’t believe me, take an afternoon off of work and watch some American Reality TV).
Being able to view your own world through the objective outlook of another is a powerful tool in relationship building. It’s as powerful as learning to laugh at yourself.
Asia challenged me with a little humility and a lot of frustration, but eventually showed me that our one world wouldn’t be nearly as amazing or colorful without so many different world views to keep things interesting. Learning to reconcile the different as different changed me.
I wish you the same, same.
PS. Don’t forget to check out the lessons I learned on the other 6 continents