When Julia Roberts embodied the spirit of American Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” in the text’s movie adaptation to widespread international acclaim, it offered insight into the continued allure of a fundamental human impulse- the desire to explore, to simplify and to rediscover. Regardless of our circumstances—and especially when we awaken to bleak prospects—it is in our nature to find an outlet for our emotions. Here, Walt Disney’s advice might seem a little too insistent: “Keep moving forward” is a difficult mantra when there really isn’t anything hopeful to look forward to. With the seeming insurmountability of our immediate challenges, we might find ourselves looking for alternative channels.
Yet the allure of “Eat, Pray, Love” doesn’t just lie in the acts of eating, praying and loving. It seems likely that a large part of the narrative’s ability to capture the imaginations of readers and moviegoers alike is the diverse and culturally rich settings of Italy, India and Indonesia. Really, if the entire thread was a recount of discovering “food, religion and emotion” in New York- or God forbid, Connecticut, would it even make it to The Food Network- let alone the New York Time’s Bestseller’s List? Granted, each city has its own unique offerings, but aren’t we drawn to the foreign- to the unknown- to the daunting world outside our own borders? That would be wrong.
The desire to look beyond our immediate settings for “rejuvenation” or “hope” is dangerous- even if not altogether misplaced. By succumbing to our instincts to turn our attentions away from our circumstances toward something distant that will (hopefully) distract us, we overlook the possibilities of our close communities providing us with new insights- insights that are gleaned when we relook, revisit and reflect on what we have. Gilbert might as well have spent her entire year in Istanbul. Why do we feel the need to travel thousands of miles to satisfy our basic needs? In Turkey- In Istanbul- In Osmanbey- Actually within a 1km radius of the Bomonti Apartments we stay in, one can easily Eat (Baklava, Pide, Durum, anything really), Pray (Mosques and Churches amongst others) and perhaps Love (but if we have soulmates, they can be anywhere right?)
There is a larger point behind this commentary that extends beyond a critique of Gilbert’s journey of rediscovery. Indeed, the logic behind the extensive value of community-specific insights might suggest one should just remain at home- wherever “home” is- and explore every corner until there isn’t a dusty place left. If so, why even study abroad? Why do University in a city other than your own? But this line of logic would also be incorrect. Our time in Istanbul has been enriching- but that’s not where the conclusion should be made.
Instead, by concluding that community-specific insight is both extremely valuable and often overlooked, a shift in the purpose of travel, of exploration and of discovery is timely. What exactly is our purpose when we “study abroad” or even when we’re on a family holiday? What do we want out of our short time in a foreign culture? It is impossible to comprehensively explore an entire city in a short period of time, in fact, it is unlikely that we as individuals are experts on our own communities. It is this very context that should prompt us to ask: What makes you travel?
And if answering this question with the proverbial “to explore and see new cultures”, 2 further questions emerge:
- How well have we explored and seen our own cultures in our own cities and countries?
- Can we really explore and see new cultures as tourists (even if guided by Tripadvisor)?
Perhaps only after responding to both of these will we be well-placed to go, to see and- importantly- to tell.
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Kit Shaun Tommy Koh
<p>A Blue Jay at Hopkins, a citizen of Singapore, a resident of the world: Titles and categories often complicate how we see our place in this world. Above everything else, I see myself as a pilot. Being up in the sky grants freedom, space, possibilities- a reminder that everything can be seen from a different perspective. Be it in education, while travelling or just being with friends- I constantly seek new dimensions, new ways of perceiving, a new- greater- understanding.</p>