Why I’ll Never Apologize for the Way I Travel

Sarita Hira is a student at Baldwin Wallace University, and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying and participating in service-learning abroad with ISA in Meknes, Morocco.

Growing up as someone who is more reserved than most, I have been told more times than I can count to “just smile more” or “don’t be afraid to speak up.” Not to mention the numerous times I’ve been asked why I’m so sad or even worse, angry. Even more unfortunate for me is that apparently the explanation that what others observe as upset is just my natural expression, is not sufficient for many. Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to these kinds of questions or criticisms of my often quiet demeanor. However, studying abroad has brought its own set of challenges.

Studying abroad in Morocco has at times left me feeling like a fish out of water. For someone who appreciates quiet, relaxed settings, living in the loud, expressive world of Moroccan culture has been a learning experience to say the least. And if my soft-spoken nature was sometimes questioned in the United States, it has been a significant obstacle for me in Morocco. Three months into my study abroad experience, I am now well versed in the art of making sure that I am often smiling and I make an effort to be outwardly and obviously friendly. Non-verbal cues have become something I am very aware of, since my more tranquil composure can sometimes be confused for unhappiness by Moroccans who look for outward, expressive gestures and facial expressions to indicate a person’s mood.

Although the initial adjustment to becoming more aware of my expressiveness was a challenge, I think the experience has been good for me. I hope to keep up my awareness of the non-verbal cues which can sometimes misrepresent my true emotions upon my return to the United States. That being said, I think there is something to be said for the quiet traveler. While quiet travelers like myself are sometimes criticized as not interacting as readily with strangers and not immersing themselves fully in the local culture, I feel that these are misconceptions. The quiet traveler may have more difficulty approaching a local, but once they do they may in fact pick up more of the cultural nuances than a talkative, outgoing traveler.

Soccer, Meknes, Morocco-Hira-Photo1
One of my favorite family photos of the ISA Meknes team took place after a competitive soccer game with some local Moroccans. Although it sometimes takes a quiet traveler like myself longer to come out of their shell, we can still be very comfortable in new situations. Especially where points are involved.

For example, while the outgoing traveler may ask many questions and there is much to be gained from this kind of inquiry, the quiet traveler may allow their conversation partner to speak freely about what comes to mind rather than about specific points brought up by the traveler. The quiet traveler may listen more attentively to the local, rather than listening and simultaneously thinking of their next question. Furthermore, the quiet traveler may be better equipped to observe the more subtle cues, from body language to tone, of the speaker and thus pick up on more of the conversation’s subtext. This is not to criticize the outgoing traveler in any way, but rather to point out the merits that come with being a quiet traveler.

For this reason, I will never apologize for being a quiet traveler. While it may not be the conventional method, I learn about culture in my own way. I appreciate suggestions by others to “just jump in” when discussing the process of integrating into the local culture, but this “jump in” methodology is simply not for everyone. Recognition and acceptance of these differences is important, because without recognition the quiet traveler may feel unappreciated or as though they are not “good enough” travelers. Instead of trying to prescribe one type of communication and travel, especially while students are studying abroad, multiple approaches should be discussed and acknowledged. In this way quiet travelers, outgoing travelers, and everyone in between can immerse themselves in their experiences their own way and be more satisfied as a result. If studying abroad is about self-discovery, then quiet travelers should be entitled to discovering themselves, rather than changing themselves to fit the norm of the “good” traveler.

Sahara, Merzouga, Morocco-Hira-Photo2
One of my favorite photos, taken with the people who have become my best friends over these past three months in the breathtaking Sahara Desert.

The world awaits…discover it.

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