Ask any seasoned traveler how long it takes to understand a foreign country and you’ll likely receive many different answers. Some will say you need to live in a country for a few years. Some will say it can be done in six months. Others believe they can get the gist of things in a few weeks.
Personally, I lean towards the “you have to live there a while” school of thought. I think it takes time to pick up on the nuances of language, or the subtle little ways that people of different genders, or socioeconomic backgrounds, or political ideologies interact in their cultures. Only then can you really start putting yourself in a local’s mindset.
We can’t really do that on this trip. Mostly, it’s because we don’t have the time. The restraint can be especially problematic for our journalism. The issue is: how can we understand what our characters are thinking and feeling when we’ve only been in their country for – what, a matter of weeks?
We’ve thought a lot about that question, and to combat the challenge, we developed four introductory questions to help us understand individuals’ values and beliefs in places we’re traveling through. They are:
- What is your dream job?
- What is the happiest you’ve ever been?
- What makes you proud to be (insert nationality)?
- Is there anything you would change about your country?
Now these are by no means scientific, but the beauty is that anyone can answer them. You can even try them on friends from your own country. Sometimes they reveal surprising things about people. I’ll use an anecdote to demonstrate:
About a month and a half ago, Morgan and I were sitting in the living room of a farm house in Isaan, one of Thailand’s poorest regions. We were excited because it was our first real opportunity to spend time with a Thai family. We had been invited there by a couchsurfer named Joy, and were eager to learn what her life in rural Thailand was like.
Midway through dinner it became evident we weren’t getting an accurate picture. The problem was that no one acted naturally because we were there. Most of the focus seemed to be on making sure our plates never emptied while they served a thanksgiving-sized feast prepared specially for our visit. (Which we were more than happy to dig into, by the way. We just wished our hosts would relax).
Then we sprung the questions on them, and it caught our hosts off-guard.
“What is your dream job?” I asked the table at large. “Keep in mind it can be anything at all. Astronaut, movie star, business exec – you name it.”
Joy, who was sitting next to me, laughed and translated the question into Thai for her relatives. Her younger sister immediately perked up and chimed in.
Joy translated back for us. “She wants to live in this house and raise four children. Two boys and two girls. That exact ratio.”
“And what about you?” I asked.
Joy thought about it a moment.
“I guess I’d want to become a professional traveler, going around and seeing the world…”
Her voice trailed off a couple of seconds before she added quietly,
“I mean — I want to be doing something like what you guys are…”
I smiled at her and looked down into my plate. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.