Travel for pleasure or out of curiosity has historically been the preserve of elites in privileged nations. For much of the colonial and post-colonial periods, most Asians who traveled did not belong to this group of tourists. They were "immigrants," fleeing political persecution or economic hardship. Does this matter? Isn't leisure travel a mere luxury, an accumulation of pictures and curios?
In fact, travel is also a state of mind, an embrace of capaciousness that transcends the confines of "home." When languages, cultures and peoples collide -- that is, when we travel -- the categories that label and classify us into separateness begin to soften. Human beings are divided by political borders, oceans, religion, skin color, eating habits and sense of humor. But if we keep our eyes and hearts open, travel reveals how much also unites the world.
Before I traveled to China, I had believed it to be inscrutable. The scale of its architecture had felt outlandish, the language sounded impenetrable and the art of the chopstick looked beyond my grasp. And yet, once I was in Beijing walking around the city's crisscrossing warren of old hutong alleyways, what I noticed was the familiar cadence of itinerant freelance recyclers, crying out for waste to buy as they slowly bicycled past the faded glory of courtyard-style homes. Rural folk shared their boiled eggs and oranges with me on bus rides across the country, reminding me of similar journeys in India. I noted the comfortable manner in which strangers addressed each other as family: auntie, grandmother, older brother.
In an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia's East Java, I was told that the three Muslim reformers who founded the school are referred to as the trimurti (the Sanskrit term for the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). And in Belgium I realized that the origin of french fries (Belgian apparently, not French) is as contentious an issue as the origin of a certain type of spring roll in Indonesia and Malaysia (both lay claim to the lumpia semarang).
YOU CALL THAT CURRY? The world over, people complain about what foreigners have done to their food. The Chinese cannot countenance the sweet and sour gloop that passes for their national cuisine in most foreign countries. Italians tell me that Alfredo sauce is an abomination. Indians can legitimately claim the same of Britain's Balti curry, not to mention the "Madras sauce" so beloved of British curry houses. And what in the name of a vindaloo is a curry house?
Travel also teaches us that different means often serve the same end. In China it is considered rude to arrive late to a party, but being early is entirely forgivable. In India, only Chinese diplomats and Huawei employees arrive before 9 p.m. for a 7 p.m. invitation. But hosts in both nations treat their guests lavishly.
Through travel we have the opportunity to realize that the truth is rarely singular. An Indian may discover how the Chinese view the 1962 border war between the two countries in a rather different light. An Indonesian might find herself unexpectedly sympathetic to the Malaysian standpoint on the matter of the lumpia. A Chinese traveler could encounter a Tibetan immigrant in the Indian Himalayas and come away with a new understanding of the Dalai Lama.
Travel puts our own reality in context. A Beijinger cannot imagine anything worse than the gridlock of the city's third ring road on a weekday evening, until she experiences a traffic jam on Jalan Sudirman in Jakarta. And a Jakartan need only spend a weekend in Mumbai to feel a lot better about the traffic in his city.
The economic ascent of China and India has meant that for the first time in centuries, Asians are now among the largest consumers of tourism in the world. And yet their travels remain focused westward, on the U.S. and the rich nations of Europe. As a result, the deep and resonant trading, cultural and religious linkages across Asia that were disrupted by colonialism and post-colonial autarky continue to be ignored, or worse, denied.
The way that we understand the world and make sense of it depends on who is producing this knowledge and within what conceptual framework. Asians of my generation have primarily understood each other through a Western lens. This can only change through travel. For travel both reveals and recalls ourselves -- to us.
Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author. She is currently based in Indonesia and has reported from China, Europe and Indonesia.