They say that there are three types of international travellers. Tourists spend a few weeks in-country, taking pictures and getting sunburns. Sojourners are temporary, but measure their stays in years rather than days. Their time abroad is one of work and engagement. Immigrants are those who have left their old-country behind forever. Their lives and fates are now permanently aligned with those of the country they now call home.
I have been fortunate enough to have had quite a few opportunities for time out on the road. My first taste of adventure was a class trip to Europe when in high school. The trip was organized by an instructor who'd grown up in Europe, so it was an odd fusion of the typical tourist traps with incredible opportunities to engage with locals (i.e. homestays, et cetera). In fact, at one point we even spent a few nights staying in a convent in the seaside town of Brighton, England where an ancient nun picked on me because I apparently eat my grapefruit like "a wee girl." Thanks, Mother Superior! Although I was unmistakably a tourist, memories of families and lives that intersected with my own left a distinct feeling of the sojourn.
In many ways, that amazing experience has determined the way in which I travel today. While I love opportunities to see and experience local sites and tourist destinations, it is the opportunities to engage with people whose experiences do not mirror my own, the chance to experience and share in local customs and cultural practices that I love most about travelling, both within the United States and abroad.
After graduating with my bachelor's I had the opportunity to live and work abroad as an English teacher in the capital of the Republic of Korea (aka "South Korea", you'd think this would be axiomatic, but I still find myself explaining that no, I didn't get to meet Kim Jong Il), Seoul. My two years in South Korea left an indelible impression upon me, both professionally and personally. From the farm country of rural Southwest Florida to a city of 10+ million inhabitants was certainly quite a change! Amazingly (perhaps the better word is "ridiculously") when I stepped of the plane at the Seoul/Incheon International Airport I knew exactly one word of Korean: Ahn nyeong ha se yo! (A form of greeting). Needless to say, my time transitioning into an understanding of Korean culture and language was both long and arduous!
During my time in Seoul I took a vacation to Bangkok, Thailand.The trip was not at all what I expected. Although the city and the culture were both very beautiful, beneath the towering architecture of ancient Thailand. in the shadows of the lofty glass and steel skyscrapers of the affluent, there was a staggering amount of poverty, crime, and sadness in the fabled city. During the duration of my trip, I kept (both subconsciously and verbally) comparing conditions in Bangkok to conditions "at home." When a friend reminded me that Seoul, South Korea was not, in fact, my "home" I was shocked, so complete was my sense of engagement and commitment to life in South Korea! On some level, I was no longer a sojourner, but an immigrant.
My question for you, then, is what kind of traveller will you be? Will you be a tourist and enjoy the beautiful sights and sounds of your host environment, but miss opportunities to engage with local culture? Will you be a sojourner and engage more deeply with your host culture, looking for an experience beyond that captured in a series of still frames? Will you be a an immigrant and do everything you can to engage permanently in a host society, even at the risk of losing connections with your parent culture? There's no correct answer to any of these questions, no singular "right" way to travel, but the kind of traveller you want to be will dictate the way you should travel.
What kind of traveller will you be?