When I traveled to Asia the first time – on my honeymoon – I traveled to Singapore and Bali. It was a wonderful time and I enjoyed the culture, the people, the culinary arts and the time abroad a lot. Whenever possible I tried to engage with local people. This really gives me a better sense of what is going on in the country and I feel much less like a tourist. As someone who speaks four languages (and counting), having lived in several countries, living in very close proximity to 6 countries (between 30 minutes to a 6 hour car drive), I have a hard time seeing me as a tourist in any sense. If at all I temporarily change my home base. That being said, I don’t really get a strong sense what it can mean to be a minority while travelling.
Leaving My Home Base
Yet, when I was in Asia, especially during the days in Singapore, I got a real sense of being a minority. This was a feeling that was absolutely novel to me. It was so new and strange that it literally took me a day to realise that it happened. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First I’d like to give you some context about how I like to travel. I don’t spend much time in my hotel room and I usually don’t do much of the typical tourist ventures. What I love to do when I am in a new town is to step outside on the street and go with the flow. I simply walk around, go left, then right, I enter a shop or a building. Ultimately I always get lost at least once and need to backtrack. Then I might go the opposite route, have a coffee and start talking with the staff. That’s what I did in Singapore, too.
Measuring The Worth Of My Budget
As I quit fast food joints a couple of years ago (with the occasional exception to the rule), I had to abandon the Big Mac Index. I exchanged it for a Starbucks black coffee index. Most countries have a Starbucks and they all serve simple black coffee. I buy one, enjoy it and get a taste of the everyday value of my current currency.
As I said, I am much less a tourist than a home base switcher i. e. I don’t exchange the value of my usual currency very much, but rather put it into perspective to my travelling budget – read salary – and make due on this basis. Coffee is a great tool for measurement as it’s common, used basically daily and in its core cheap enough to make due as a source of everyday-value-measurement tool.
Getting To Know The People
One of the first things I did in the coffee shop, besides having a cup of black coffee – which seems to be an odd order no matter where I travel to – was to talk to the staff. The staff had plenty of time to chat with me as the shop was almost empty. This meant that we had plenty of time to chat. After the usual small talk – where are you from, why are you here, how long do you stay etc. – we chatted for another half an hour about what to do in Singapore.
I always make it a point to ask them where they go after work or on weekends. Make sure not to ask what you should do while you are around. The difference is huge and ensures that you are as little a tourist as possible. They made plenty of fun suggestions and I followed up on a few of them.
Next, I kept exploring the vicinity of the area around my hotel. I went into small stores, huge shopping malls had more (local) coffee and got a feeling of the city and the people. Later I returned to the hotel and updated my wife. She initially suffered from jet-lag. That is why this story is mainly written about my personal experiences – in case you wondered about this.
As my wife needed a little more time to recover and I was getting hungry I went out again. We were approaching the after work hours and I felt like having a soup. I love soups (recipe 1, recipe 2, recipe 3, recipe 4) and over the next couple of days, I had it daily at least once.
The Exploration Continues
Like earlier in the day, I stumbled around Singapore. I was looking for a place to eat that wasn’t generic or part of a mega mall complex. Luckily you have plenty of tiny food courts and corners in Singapore. After offsetting myself from the main roads, walking through small side corners and places I saw two groups of locals. One of them was getting out of a basement area and the other one was entering said area. That kind of thing gets me instantly excited because I hope for a local treasure. So I followed them and ended up in a food court – I never found this court again!
I walked around a little, checking out the different food corners until I found a good looking soup place. After having had a look at the prices I knew that I found a local spot. It was much cheaper than any other soup place I found earlier that day and even, later on, I wasn’t able to find anything cheaper.
I randomly chose the ingredients for my soup, as I didn’t know what most of them were. Then I went to the checkout and tried to get the spiciest broth they had. This was a little difficult as the old lady didn’t speak any English I didn’t speak any Asian language that could have been of any use. Despite the odds, we managed to close the culinary transaction and I got a spicy soup.
All I needed was a place to sit and enjoy the food. That’s when it struck me that I was literally the only non-Asian person in the room. Out of around 75 people I was suddenly standing out. This was weird. I found a place and set down. After a few moments I was alone at my table, no one joined it and yet they could have needed the space as the other tables were rather full.
Being A Minority
This was the closest to being a minority I ever managed to get. When you live in continental Europe, being a minority as a white male without any mental or physical handicaps basically doesn’t happen. To be clear, no one treated me badly that day, nor afterwards. I only have highly positive memories of Singapore and Bali. Yet, this feeling of being the white elephant in the room has made me think a lot.
For the first time in my life, I had the chance to get a glimpse into the world of minorities. For the first time, I wasn’t only reading about a subject like immigration, LGTBQ+, skin colour etc, I was on the receiving end. Of course, I was still in the lucky position of being treated well and like a human being. Yet, I started to understand many things for the first time.
I am a person that works well on their own. I am rather introverted and enjoy grinding through ideas, thoughts and books. My hobbies can be solitary. At the same time, I seek to exchange thoughts, ideas and want to partake in activities with others. The fact that people kept their distance from me was showing me how no matter I might like this, as a minority, I wouldn’t be able to choose this on my own terms. I would be subject to the sad fact of finding people who are willing and open-minded enough to make me part of their world – even if I’m a Caucasian male.
Connecting The Dots
With my background, I always thought I had a good feeling for minorities. I learned to accept and welcome them with open arms. I have been exposed early on to many different people, with all sorts of backgrounds. My first six years of school were very special. I was part of a classroom following the idea of inclusion. This meant I had kids in my class that were mentally and/or physically challenged.
We shared one class and at the beginning the same curriculum. I learned a lot about love and kindness during those days. Later on, I made use of it when I moved to a new country and a different kind of inclusion class. This time I was in a room full of people who all didn’t speak French. The age range started at 11-12 and went up to 22 years of age. We represented at least 11 different nations, some of them being at war with each other at that time. But we also grew fond of each other, despite or maybe because of the differences. We learned to live with the language and cultural differences
As a group, we were a big minority and we stuck together, helped each other out. We made sure that no one was left behind as far as it was humanly possible. It was a wonderful experience and being the white elephant in the room makes me cherish those moments much more.
Did you have similar experiences in your life? Maybe you are part of a minority on your everyday life. How does it affect you? I’d really love to get your feedback on this.
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