Business Class: How Travel Makes Me More Human

When I took the job at the agency six years ago, I could not have imagined all the places it would take me – literally. Japan, China, France, London (regularly), Switzerland, Brazil, Romania (hello to all my friends there) for heaven’s sakes. I’m in New York and San Fransisco enough to have preferences of hotel rooms. I have a favorite place for poutine in Toronto and a favorite BBQ place in Austin. I’ve sweltered in Singapore and sauntered through the streets of Barcelona. I’ve prayed in a temple in Kuala Lumpur before buying a knock-off Bell & Ross at a Chinese night market.

All in all, it has been an incredible, unexpected journey. It’s meant a lot of time away from my family. It’s been navigating customs and airports, bridging language barriers and overcoming cultural flubs (if you ever do business in Tokyo, make sure you have plenty of business cards). I will go through periods of extreme travel – New York, Shanghai and Raleigh, North Carolina inside of two weeks – and long dry spells, where I am at home, commuting and living a day-to-day life. Both are exciting. Both rewarding. Both can be exhausting in different ways. I get tired of the unfamiliar when I travel. I grow weary of the familiar when I am at home.

I don’t have a need to escape, but there’s something about being away that makes being home better and I think I’m finally starting to understand why. True, home tends to be more comfortable and comforting. But at home, you are more often in control. You have command of the language, agency in the tasks and events of your day and more autonomy.

When I travel, when I am in unfamiliar places, I am often completely reliant upon other people. The cab driver in Tokyo who helped me find my hotel despite a complete lack of common language. The amazing people in my agency’s Bucharest office who catered to my every need while helping to show me their country. My friend Hannah in London, who met me in the hotel lobby and walked me to where I needed to go so I wouldn’t get lost.

At home, I know where to go. I know what I’m doing. When I travel, I often don’t. I am an alien in a strange land – both abroad and here in the States – forced to rely on others to help me find my way. It’s humbling, but also refreshing. I enjoy being a guest. It makes me a better host and more present as a person.

I’m not prone to quote religious scripture, but there’s a line in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21) where he instructs the early Christians to be “subject to one another.” I’ve always liked that idea. Paul was a traveler, a wealthy Roman merchant who was knocked off his horse by the voice of God. He spent the rest of his life uniting early pockets of the church, literally going from community to community, country to country to find common purpose among them. And his best piece of advice was “be subject to one another.”

It means to be a good host and a better guest. It means to trust one another, rely on one another, count on the fact that we have each others’ backs. I have experienced that. I experience it every time I’m in an unfamiliar place. And I try to bring that home with me, to be someone the people I know and love, the people I see every day can count on.

There are so many things that tear people apart. So many things that create distance. We tend to clump people into neat little packages and write them all off with the same broad pen. We do it politically, geographically. As marketers, we do it demographically. It becomes easy to think of people as ‘other,’ as numbers to be counted or dismissed, as targets to be sold.

But spend some time in a place where you don’t speak the language. Go to a place where you can’t tell north from south, east from west, and rely on the kindness and generosity of strangers, even for a day, and you might not be so quick to write people off. Being subject to one another doesn’t mean being subject to one over the other. It means having each others’ back, helping a stranger who is lost, trusting a stranger to help you find your way.

It’s good for a person to be reminded of that feeling of reliance. It’s good to feel lost and to let someone help you find your way. It is, after all, one of the things that makes us humans and one of the things that prevents us from being numbers in someone else’s book.

When have you found yourself relying on others? I’d love to know. Leave a comment or mention me on Facebook or @cheimbuch on twitter.

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