Picture this: You’re traveling abroad, your mind and eyes wide open and ready to take in new cultures and ways of thinking. You’ve just arrived in a new city, ready to explore. You begin chatting briefly with a hostel roommate, or a fellow traveler on a bus. And this person begins to say rude things about the place you’re in, or the people in it.
And I’m not talking about making remarks on the country’s politics, or casting aspersions on the region’s nightlife. I’m talking about downright bigoted or racist statements. How do you react? How do you respond?
I ran into this very scenario in a hostel in Sydney. I had just arrived on a sunny August morning, and was excited to get out and explore the iconic city. But, before hitting the pavement, I checked into my hostel to deposit my things.
In my room, an middle-aged British woman was sitting on her bed, knitting. We began chatting about all the usual things — where we were from (she was in the process of moving to Sydney permanently), what we did (she was trying to find full-time work), and what I was planning to do with my day in Sydney.
The conversation began innocently enough. But then the talk shifted toward politics. This was not a surprise, considering we were just months away from the 2008 Presidential election in the U.S. I had been getting asked about who I was supporting for months already — even a group of Malaysian students at Massey University in Wellington were following Obama’s campaign.
The woman I was talking to didn’t think Obama should be running for President, or that America should elect him. I was okay with her opinion; people are allowed to have opinions. My dad shared the very same opinion, in fact. But, it was the woman’s reasoning behind her opinion that rubbed me the wrong way.
Glancing around to make sure that Niko, our Japanese roommate, was not within earshot, the woman told me that, in her opinion, blacks and Asians were going to lead to the decline of the Western world.
It took me a second to register what she was saying. If she'd only included Jews, it would have been something right out of Nazi propaganda. She went on to give me her opinions on things like interracial marriage, and Western nations giving aid to Asian and African ones.
In short, this woman was offensive. Incredibly so.
I stopped her just as she was launching into a tirade about Aboriginals in Sydney to tell her — as politely as I could — that I was inclined to disagree with her, and that I really wanted to get out and see Sydney.
I left the room as quickly as possible, feeling slightly enraged. I wanted to argue with the woman; yell at her, even. I briefly contemplated asking for a bed in a different room, but decided to let myself calm down first.
Up until that point, I was used to meeting a different sort of traveler — the sort that is open-minded, tolerant, and willing to embrace “the other.” I hadn’t come across anyone like this woman before — or, if I had, they had never shared their offensive thoughts with me.
Meeting this woman was a stark reminder to me that ALL sorts of people travel. And not all of them are going to share my opinions or ideologies.
When I returned to the hostel that night, I had dinner with Niko in the lounge. She was a spunky girl who had just arrived in Sydney from Tokyo the previous day. She was planning to live and work there for a year; maybe even move there someday, she said.
We chatted for a while, me trying to decipher her broken English and both of us laughing at the slight communication barrier that existed between us. For me, this barrier — and finding ways to get past it — is one of the most rewarding things to tackle while traveling. It’s amazing how connections can be made, even when you don’t speak the same language.
It hurts me to know that some people don’t feel the same way.
In the end, I decided not to change rooms. After getting to know Niko a bit, I felt it would be unfair of me to leave her in a room with a woman who clearly didn't think she belonged in Australia. Instead, I made sure Niko and I went back into our room together, talking and laughing.
The British woman didn't talk to me again after that.
Have you ever run into people like this while traveling? How do you handle these sorts of awkward situations?