While studying abroad in Western Australia, one of my flatmates generously offered to cook everyone a nice steak dinner. Now, ordinarily, I don’t really eat steak; I try to refrain from eating animals for which we need euphemisms to consume comfortably. But that night, I decided that free food was free food, and when in Rome, right? I remember thinking that the steak tasted a little, well, gamey. Only hours later, upon finding the discarded packaging for the meat, did I make the unsettling discovery: “Kangaroo sirloin, $11”. It was a peculiar sensation to realize that the animal carcass I’d been munching on was not, in fact, a cow, but instead an animal that I had never seen in real life up until a few months ago. I could not help but feel a general malaise about the whole thing…we may as well have been eating a koala, I thought. Given my reaction to this unintentional instance of adventurous eating, then, one might readily assume that I refrained from eating kangaroo for the remainder of my time in Australia. But this was not the case; I did indeed consume more dead kangaroo meat on numerous occasions. In my defense, none of this was purchased by me. It was always one of those occasions when, out to dinner with a large group, multiple dishes were passed around—often including kangaroo skewers. The reasons behind why I did not politely decline these offerings revealed something to me about why we should travel, and indeed, why traveling can become so transformational for so many people.
I am not generally an adventurous eater. If it still has eyes, tentacles, feathers, or a heartbeat, you can pretty much count me out. I squirm at the thought of oysters, escargot, or raw fish. I have had numerous opportunities, while living in Madison, to try all of the above, and I have always resisted. Why, then, did I suddenly change my tune once I was in another country? Out for fish and chips, someone offered me a bit of fried squid; shrugging nonchalantly, I popped a piece in my mouth. Urged to try cold octopus, suction cups very much still visible, I obliged with minimal hesitation. I can assure you that I never would have tried these foods had I not been in a different country. Why? I do not think it is the different culture itself that has induced me to willingly leave behind my old habits; Australian culture is really too similar to American culture for this to be the case. And I think this is important to note because, too often when we travel, we toe the line between attempting to have an “authentic” experience and actually fetishizing another culture. Thus, Australia is not some mystical land operating under different universal laws; rather, it is the sensation itself of being uprooted, adrift, and constantly a little lost which has enabled this letting go. And I daresay that an international student studying in the U.S. could have just as transformational an experience as I could have in another country. It is the difference that matters.
I unconsciously live my life within a set of rules that I have, in effect, made up for myself. Leaving everything and everyone I know to go live on the opposite side of the globe has forced me to let go of these rigid, often arbitrary rules that I’d created for myself. Perhaps the reason that the world looks different from this hemisphere has more to do with my mental location than it does my physical location. It is not the culture that is fundamentally different, but me.