Undiscovery as discovery

In one of those bursts of self-reflection that are unavoidable as a traveler, I realized how much my loose plan for the day differed from a typical day back home in the U.S. First, I was eating breakfast, specifically bread with cheese and jam—more or less a standard morning spread in Chile (really bread with any kind of topping). I sipped from a mug of instant powder coffee with liquid stevia added. I had a few classes to teach around the city and decided to forgo bringing my large reusable water bottle to try to keep my bag light. And even as I ate, the planner and food lover in me were conspiring about when I would be able to drink my daily cup of tea and possibly a glass of red wine.

Although none of these routines is particularly remarkable, each of them did mark a rather profound change from my previous habits. The U.S. Cali had denounced breakfast as unnecessary and refused to eat it; she had made it a point to never drink coffee more than once a week, unwilling to chance addiction; she had embraced her trademark as the girl who always had her water bottle with her; she had drunken tea less than 10 times in her life and had no appreciation for red wine.

While at the table, I texted my two former roommates, knowing they’d appreciate these small day-to-day changes. I ended my message with the words “who AM I,” to which Tina responded, “Whoa wtf. That’s dope look at you.” And she was right. Look at me. The more time I spent adjusting to my new life abroad in Santiago, Chile, the more I recognized changes in myself that were more a re-shaping of old habits than anything else.

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Flight into Chile flying over the Andes

So often when we talk about traveling or moving somewhere new, we tend to focus on the theme of discovery, both internal and external. Most of the conversation around discovery can be categorized into two classic threads: the unexpected and the pursued. The unexpected is perhaps the most prized kind of discovery—when you stumble upon a new food (in my case red wine), dance style, or hobby that naturally becomes a part of your identity, like adding a new layer to the self. The pursued—when you intentionally set out to try something different—is more purposeful, but can be just as satisfying, like promising yourself that you’ll learn to dance salsa, then successfully dancing with a stranger in a club after a couple months of classes. Whenever we discuss traveling we gush over all the new people and places and things someone will uncover, even fantasizing about ourselves in these Kodak-like moments. People expect us to share stories centered on these discoveries, and we hold ourselves to these expectations, too.

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Bigger bottles of wine than I’ve seen anywhere else

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One of the country’s many vineyards

What is many times excluded from discussions about traveling, especially for long time periods, is a third type of self-discovery: the act of undiscovering. This thread, which I’ve coined the undone, focuses not on adding layers to the self, but rather on the ways preexisting layers loosen, shift and sometimes crack altogether. The kinds of subtle change that embed themselves deeply and are revealed by way of routine.

When a friend one day on the phone casually inquired about all the restaurants I must be checking out, I was embarrassed. Back in my home state people considered me to be a foodie and restaurant connoisseur, always seeking and trying out new places to eat. I found myself explaining my new habit of home-cooked social dinners in the same manner that one might apologetically offer an excuse for a faux paus. I had transgressed invisible boundaries that felt real all the same. I hid my shame.

A month later, after being asked for a restaurant recommendation, I took another ego-hit and floundered to find a suitable place by reaching out to several local contacts. By then it was a little easier to admit that I was no longer in the know food-wise, but the situation still chipped away at some of my pride. It was hard to acknowledge, to my friends and to myself, that one of the special traits that others knew me for was no longer a part of my new reality.

Homecooked meals with friends

Altering the way you are (and probably have been for a while) in order to adapt to your new surroundings is usually difficult to do. We go abroad to change and learn, but are afraid of learning or changing in a way that makes us “lose ourselves.” Yet this third kind of discovery is perhaps the most important of all. Undiscovering makes us confront the largely unchallenged ways that we go through and experience the world. It makes us vulnerable to ourselves and exposes our hidden norms.

Changes we adopt that can be classified as undiscovery stem from the differences in the culture around us, and simultaneously allow us to deeper integrate into this culture. The more we are willing to change, the better we can authentically immerse in a new culture.

To be able to enjoy my new country, I had to radically alter my concept of time and the way my native culture had drawn meaning from it. For most of my life, there had been clear lines drawn between day and nighttime. As soon as the sun set on a weekday, it was time to start either heading home or making plans to head home, so that one could make dinner, do last-minute household activities and then (usually) watch TV before bed. In Chile, the night is simply an extension of the day. People eat dinner later here and it’s very normal to be out and about until 10 p.m. during the week. On a weekend, my friends wouldn’t even consider going out before midnight, and clubs even offer promotions to try to get people in the door before one a.m.

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Salsa dancing club

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Photo taken during nighttime wanderings of the city

Previously, I saw time as something fixed, rigid and often insidious. My culture took offense to lateness, seeing it as a personal insult to waste someone else’s time, as if time itself could be owned and borrowed. Upon settling overseas, I had to start fighting my natural impulse to anger when someone arrived late or people evasively made and later cancelled plans. I gave up my illusionary control of time and accepted that things would happen eventually.

When we leave our hometowns we are usually seeking some wordless combination of freedom, discovery and change. Undiscovering as discovery gives us the greatest freedom by revealing how fluid and contextual our identity really is. In the same way that we are different versions of ourselves with different people, traveling allows us to create entirely different selves depending on where we are. And when we embrace this ever-changing definition of the self, we have more room for discovery both within ourselves and outside of ourselves.

 

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