During the mid-year break I made the spontaneous decision to take a solo overseas trip to Russia. As a history major, Russia provided me the same level of excitement as a weeklong pub crawl would for any regular 22-year-old.
Interestingly, not everyone shared my enthusiasm. The response from my family and friends was one of misunderstanding and significant apprehension. Understandably, they questioned my safety. Commonly associated with high levels of crime and dodgy ‘business enterprises’ there is no doubting why one would approach the former Soviet empire with caution. However, most people’s apprehension drew from the fact that Russia sat firmly outside the ‘tourist bubble’, in other words, it is not as yet incorporated into any Contiki tour routes. Who goes to Russia? Can anyone even speak English there? My dear friends were genuinely perplexed.
I can confidently conclude that navigating Russia with minimal Russian-speaking capabilities was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. But linguistic hurdles aside, the greatest challenge was by far emotional. I felt alienated in a country that was unwilling to adapt to me.
At first, I was resentful. I’d ask a question in English and they’d scold and walk away. Locals would talk to me in Russian and I’d stare blankly back, humiliated and extremely regretful of my decision to venture outside the mother tongue. It was intimidating, highly inconvenient and for the most part, incredibly lonely.
Fortunately, what started as a definite mistake turned into one of the most valuable experiences of my life. All it took was a mere change in attitude.
A few days into the trip, I came to a realisation. I had acquired ‘true blue’ Australian tourist syndrome caused by the unwillingness to accept the existence of another dominant culture. My symptoms included the unconscious expectation that everyone should conform to me. As Australians, we have the great fortune of living within a culturally diverse society, which, for the most part, we do so peacefully as long incoming cultures adhere to our cultural values. We expect them to speak our language, consume our popular culture and engage in a way congruent to our understanding of social acceptability. How many times have we shared a resentful glance with a co-worker in response to a customer whose broken English was making the order a thousand times longer to understand?
All of a sudden I was that customer, and fortunately I realised it was a position I needed to be in. In fact, it’s a position that we should all experience at some stage. At a time when issues concerning cultural diversity are becoming increasingly relevant within Australian society, intercultural understanding is more important than ever. My experiences in Russia vested me with the ability to empathise with the feeling of complete cultural alienation and the challenges pertaining to it. They say to truly understand somebody you must take a walk in their shoes, same goes for understanding diversity.
As someone who always considered themselves attuned to this particular topic, the trip completely changed the way I engage within this discussion. Having experienced the position of cultural minority first-hand I no longer consider inherent ignorance the sole cause of racial prejudice but rather misunderstanding caused by a lack of exposure.
By venturing outside our comfort zones we learn to co-exist amidst differences. It is these insights that I believe hold the key to eradicating prejudice and subsequently promoting a more peaceful, inclusive society, thus proving that travelling can empower so much more than just the individual.
So go to the most random country you can think of and embrace the feeling of being a complete outsider. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy my fair share of pub crawls, that feeling of complete cultural alienation, however, was by far the most valuable thing I took away from my European adventure.