Commentary: Of Things Which Are Different, Both Little and Large

The first time I ever visited Canada I was fascinated by all the things which were different. The road signs, the occasional sign in French, the metric system, and the different products in the stores. The reason why those things stuck out is because, as much as Canadians hate to admit it, America and Canada are pretty much the same. The things I found different were aberrations (to me) on what was otherwise a very familiar background.

I point this out because humans are pattern seeking animals. We evolved to notice patters in the weather, the environment, migrations of animals, and the stars. When I went to Canada I noticed trivial things because they broke up the patterns I was used to seeing. You can notice similar things as you go from state to state as well. I assume the same would be true of Canadians visiting the US or Germans visiting Austria or people from Beijing visiting Shanghai. What very few differences exist between people from Wisconsin and Minnesota are exaggerated and amplified whenever they get together. (duck duck goose vs duck duck grey duck)

When I visited Japan I had the opposite experience that I had in Canada. Everything was different, so my eye immediately was drawn to those things which I found similar. When I walked in a 7-11, I couldn’t help but notice that they too had Lay’s potato chips (although they had seaweed flavor). If I looked in a cooler I’d notice a bunch of beverages I’d never seen before….and Coke. My eye was drawn to the Coke because that was familiar.

Familiar.....but differentSometimes, our attempts at pattern seeking can backfire on us. We can attempt to try to create a pattern where none exists or try to find a pattern using too little data. I’ve met many people in the course of traveling who have had diametrically different views of a place. Some people love Vietnam and some people hate it. Their opinion is usually a result of the unique circumstances they experienced during their trip, but they extrapolate their experience to be a general claim on the entire country. In its worst manifestation, you get stereotyping, which is really just trying to impose a pattern which doesn’t exist on something.

Much of what we see and observe when we travel are subject to these pattern seeking habits we’ve developed. What we come away with when we visit a new place is often a result of these habits we’ve unconsciously developed our whole lives. There is nothing particularly wrong with it, but you should be aware of your own observational limitation lest you come away from a place with an opinion which is shaded too much by what you are trying to look for.

You can also miss things if you don’t know what you should be looking for. Someone from Beijing visiting Hong Kong would notice right away that Hong Kong uses traditional Chineses characters instead of simplified Chinese characters. If you don’t know how to read Chinese, you’d probably never know there was a difference. It would be like a Chinese speaker not noticing that some European languages use an umlaut (ö) and some don’t. If you don’t know the language, there is no way you could know what is different.

I am just as guilty of this as anyone. I constantly ask myself if I can make any larger claims about the places I visit based on my experiences. If I go to Thailand and eat some food, can I then say something about Thai food, or am I really experiencing a regional variation that I am just unaware of? If you have a bad meal, is it the restaurant, the dish or the entire cuisine? Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

One of the reasons I like to visit McDonald’s at least once when I visit a country is that is provides a common background that I’m accustom to, so I can more easily see the local variations that stick out. In the same way, someone from China might learn more about America from eating in a Chinese restaurant than they would going to McDonald’s. Knowing Chinese food, you could easily see in what ways it has been changed to adjust to American palates.

The point of this post is this: You are a product of your background. There is no escaping it. Be aware when you are traveling that what you see migh be because you are looking for it, and there might be things you don’t see because you don’t know to look.

28 thoughts on “Commentary: Of Things Which Are Different, Both Little and Large”

  1. I hate the idea of world being ‘global village’. Differences are our most precious treasures. They are the reason why people travel – discovering not only new places, but also new cultures, people with different views as well as food and products we can’t have at home. It’s good to have a refence point, but if everything was the same, travelling would be borung and useless.

  2. I really liked that. I tend to enjoy meditative travelogues where people talk about differences and similarities. If I may, I would like plug my younger brother’s travelogue to Japan where he goes through a lot of the same. It begins at the following URL:

    I have your blog in my RSS reader and, although I love your photos, I love posts like these the most!

  3. It’s strange but it’s true.
    I’ve lived in a few places so far in my life and I think that you can only really appreciate the true differences of a culture when you spend significant time in that place. After a year in Barcelona, I got to know not only the city, but the people, the culture and the history in far more depth than I imagined I could. For those places we can’t spend such a long time in, it pays to sit back, open ourselves up to things outside our comfort zone, but like you say, not be scared to try those things that are familiar and see how they vary.
    As a new member of this community, I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  4. There is definately comfort in the familar even if it is a familar from something foreign that you are used to…take for example lemon fanta, only something you can get abroad but when i was in Greece surrounded by all the excited new and adventrous thing, holding on to something i KNEW like seeing a lemon fanta that i could drink, that was conforting, not like Greece is out of the way unfamilar but….you know what i mean! lol

  5. Great post Gary, reminds me of that maxim of physics (OK, it has been a while since I studied any of the sciences, but this is the gist) – that it is impossible to observe any scientific experiment without becoming a part of it, without altering it by your presence. Essentially, even in a science lab, there is no such thing as the objective observer. We colour every experience by our presence.

  6. I agree the first country I visited is Singapore and they have this Yakult drink with different flavor in which good thing i love it

  7. I think the longer you travel the fewer preconceived notions you bring to the place you’re in, and the less personal history you “taint” it with. If you’re just starting out on a long journey you’ll see “home” everywhere you look, and color reality at every turn. After awhile however, I think you’ll start to see the culture as it truly is, as opposed to what you bring there.

    Interesting post. Thoughtful.

  8. Great post I kind of touched on some of your points in an article I wrote about writing an About Me section as a traveler. It seems all we can do is display our observation of a place, its people or a dish at that certain time and experience. I’m sure the fluidity and changing nature of the world will present itself even more when I finally make it back to Rio with all the Olympic/FIFA preparations.

  9. Yep, I totally agree. When I was travelling overseas through Europe last year I felt slightly relieved when I got to England because I felt like I was back at home (I’m from Australia). People drove on the left side of the road, they spoke my language, there was our Queen (who I don’t particularly like calling “ours”) on all the coins and, at night, everyone got really, really drunk. Yep, just like home. I was glad to be there.

  10. I had a meal in Saigon with a friend who referred to it as “bad food.” I don’t think the food was bad — we could see the open kitchen, it was spotless, and the restaurant was rather a nice place. But the food was just way too mysterious for our Yankee palettes. None of us gringos liked the food, but I couldn’t go so far as to call it “bad.”

    I’m not a fan of McDs, but I’ve ducked in to Starbucks (okay, it’s almost the same) in far away place for the reassurance of the familiar. It’s always odd to see it against the background of an unfamiliar place.

    Nice read. Thanks.

  11. I agree with Gray – you nailed it Gary.

    I also like to step into McDonald’s around the world to see what they have that’s different. I used to like the fried chicken they had in Taiwan McD’s as a kid, and I was jealous they had the fish snack wraps in Oz (they don’t have them here in Canada yet).

    Same thing goes for Starbucks — as much as they try to make the experience the exact same in every country, they have differences too. Ex. in Taiwan (at least in 2005), their cold drinks were served in almost styrofoam-like paper cups instead of the plastic ones we use in North America.

  12. Hi Gary

    Interesting point, and one that nonetheless is what makes us realize wre are in a different place to where we usually are.

    There is another thing that has surprised me in your entry: being a world traveller as you are, you also refer to the USA as America (when comapring it vs Canada). I would have thought that in your case this would not happen. We all know that there are many countries in America, but there is only one US of A. Have to give credit to the other nations i’d say!

    happy travels,


    PS I also find myself in a McDonald’s every now and then when traveling. It is one of the few things that remain familiar no matter where you are.

    • Sorry, but you are wrong.

      Everyone in the world refers to the United States of America as America. Everyone. Even people from other countries in the Americas (plural).

      The United States of America is the only country in the world that has the world “America” in its name. People of the English colonies were referred to as Americans before the founding of the USA. The word “America” is more unique than are the words “United States” which are also shared with Mexico who’s official title is the United States of Mexico.

      When referring to the continent or continents you use North America or South America or when referring to them collectively, as the Americas.

      Being a world traveler, the only people who object to the use of the word “America” are a small set of sensitive Americans. I have never, ever met anyone who doesn’t use the word to describe the United States and its people.

  13. Great article. Very interesting point you make about learning perhaps more of a country by eating in a familiar restaurant to see how different the food is prepared to accustom the local palate – I never thought of that since I love to explore the difference – but maybe a really would learn more by seeking the familiar?

  14. So true. :-) I love comparing, evaluating, observing while I travel. The differences delight me for the most part, but I have to remember that I’ve only experienced one teensy part of a whole whirling kaleidoscope of experiences. I treasure my memories but try not to force them on anyone else.

  15. I agree with your central point. I think the challenge is to try and understand how the differences – to you – of another culture are their familiar reference points. You could call it an “out-of-culture experience.” If you can achieve this state, you are successfully broadening your world view.

  16. Interesting read Gary. Very true, we are a product of our background.
    But I wonder, what about the person who’s been traveling for a long period (over a year or even 2 years) in many different places and has become detached from what ties him to his “background”?
    How would a true nomad see things?

  17. Interesting topic. I think there are huge variations right here within the U.S. I grew up in New Jersey, so I consider myself spoiled by with good food that I don’t necessarily find elsewhere, especially abroad. But I’m happy about that because it forces me to try new things.

    Steven Colbert said, “There’s nothing American tourists like more than the things they can get at home.” While some people do fit into this category, I certainly try very hard to mix it up and experience new things abroad.

  18. Very interesting thought on “regional” differences in food. Visiting Rome and judging Italian food by what you eat there would be like eating at a restaurant in New York City and thinking it would be the same in Hayward WI. Silliness.

    I enjoy being able to make obscure references and knowing you will understand them:)

    From another WI native, MN transplant,

    Debbie Ferm

  19. The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. G. K. Chesterton

  20. Great observation, Gary. I’ve spent the last 5 weeks in Vietnam and almost nothing is familiar, yet I love it. (I’d like to know why Nomadic Matt hates this place so much.) My eye is always drawn to Pringles cans, which is just about the only familiar thing I see each day.

    I’ll even take it a step further to suggest that nearly everything we see just reinforces our world view. I’m a free-market libertarian type and seeing some of these crazy (and inefficient) things just helps me know I was right all along, yet I’m also sure that lefties see the same things and it makes them sure the government should be more involved.

  21. Well said, Gary. We view the world through filter of what we’ve already lived and learned, which is all the more reason to get out and experience as much newness as possible. One of the more fulfilling aspects of travel is seeing those things that were strange upon arrival become normal and expected – and things I actually look forward to.

  22. You nailed it, Gary. We cannot escape seeing life through our own particular lens, which has been crafted by our own unique life experiences. Same is true whenever we read a text or watch a movie. We bring our life experiences, baggage, and points of view to bear on everything. Which is why we should all be hesitant to take one person’s word for what a place (or book or movie) is like; read as much as you can about it to get a more well-rounded picture.

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