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CHINA: Trusting your ears

When you step outside your comfort zone of language and culture, you can’t always trust your own eyes and ears.

This morning, I got an email that reminded me why the open mind is critical when you travel. Especially when “we” travel.

It was from Mike Franklin, a photographer with whom I used to work in San Diego during our newspaper days. He’s still in daily journalism, only nowadays, he’s practicing the craft in China. Beijing, to be exact.

Naturally, he’s keeping a blog. And recently, he posted something that he wanted me — and you — to see.

“I put up a blog post that I thought might interest you in terms of your blog, “I’m Black and I Travel.” I don’t know if you have ever been to China but if you have readers who may be traveling there this could save some bad feelings.”

It’s about race and racism. It’s also about the power of words and the greater greater power — and danger — of perception:

“After a short time in Beijing I started to notice that people use a word that sounds way too close to the shortened version of the N-word. At first you just think…Naw…. I must be hearing things: then you begin to hear it everywhere. Once you start hearing it you notice it all the time. It is hard to deal with. People start off sentences with it, they use it in the middle at the end in between words. I start to wonder if they picked it up from some movie that was popular in China.”

As you’ll see when you read the whole thing, all is not as it seems, or sounds.

You can read the entire post here.

A lot of us, shaped by culture, family and life in general, grow up to be extremely sensitive to the slightest perception of racial slights. I’m talking hair-trigger sensitivity and we take it wherever we go, including out into the wider world.

With that sensitivity comes the potential for some truly ugly misunderstandings.

I am the last person to suggest that a black man or woman ignore a racial slur hurled at them. But Mike’s blog post reminds us that when you’re moving not only outside your cultural comfort zone but outside your own language, you need to check yourself first. Is what you just heard actually what you just heard?

It might not be.

One of the fears that keeps a lot of us from traveling is the fear that we’ll encounter racism and prejudice abroad as we’ve encountered it here at home. And when you do travel, that hair trigger goes on high alert. But the cultural experience that we wear like armor at home can easily become unwieldy baggage abroad.

The moral: Keep an open mind when you travel. Presume nothing, assume nothing, ask questions about everything. Mike’s post is a reminder that, when we’re taking those first tentative steps into someone else’s world, we can’t always trust our own eyes and ears.

Travel is about picking up new experiences, not validating old ones.

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