Last month, I went on a four-week trip to Eastern Europe, with Kraków, Poland as a base, and explored nearby countries during weekends. I was alone half the time, with the remaining half spent with either the primary school students I was assigned to teach (as volunteer of a project), or my dearest roommates (who are volunteers, as well).
One of the lines of literature I’ll never forget is the saying (and I paraphrase here),
“You can only truly experience culture in two ways, 1) upon immersing yourself in its environment, engaging your five senses and taking everything in through observation and conversation, and 2) allowing its literature to color your imagination with vivid pictures and ideas about its character.”
Throughout my time in Krakow, I partook in both, and both changed me.
An assortment of new knowledge, novel experiences, valuable reflection time, and mingling with cultures very different from my own led to a remarkable experience of self-actualization. I delight in telling you what I discovered about myself, what my new convictions arose within, and how I endeavor to respond to life from now on. Do read on with an open mind.
Every place I visit causes a metamorphosis, but this time is more magical than the rest.
Travel isn’t a way for me to escape; it is rather a means for me to become more creative and prudent. Acquired knowledge becomes inspiration–a springboard to novel ideas one can process. When one is a stranger in a foreign place, he steps out of his comfort zone and is forced to interact for practical reasons, and to cope with his loneliness. He finds himself with people who have completely different values and dispositions from his, and he must adjust to new habits and mannerisms–there is a peculiar way of greeting the stranger in the elevator or asking for the bill in a restaurant. He faces a lot of uncertainty, especially in the beginning. His faith is possibly tested because he had never been around many people who had starkly different religious views. In the end, though, his beliefs are strengthened–they just went through a process of pruning. His principles are cut down to the bare necessities, sharpened and smoothened by testing.
The catalytic richness of travel arises when one does it thoughtfully–reflecting on his impressions, watching out for anything that strikes his curiosity, and making sure his thirst for understanding is satisfied.
The more I travel thoughtfully, the more I trust my unique way of seeing the world. I no longer feel inferior over others who have strong opinions, rather, I acknowledge that my opinions bear weight because they arise from a desire to understand.
Something about my time spent in Europe inspired a radical self-assurance. Perhaps it was the characteristic of candor among Western cultures–the propensity to hold close to one’s opinion and to openly disagree with others. It might have also been the rich and colorful history that expanded my scope of vision and understanding to many years back. Experience with different works of art allowed me to explore deeper within myself. It was also timely that I was listening to Ray Dalio’s Principles on Audible during long commutes to and from work–a book of great encouragement. All of these elements blended together to create an unlimited spring of internal energy that is replenished each new day. I never slumped back to insecurity since, and I am more accepting of criticism, and consequently, more creative and empowered to reach ambitious heights.
But what then, if not pride, does independence and a radical but principled way of thinking bring? Apart from the ability to pursue one’s potential without the permission of circumstance, it is the emergence of a most genuine kind of integrity–a system that corrects itself through constant reflection. It cannot function without proper alignment–in thought, speech and deed, if its parts are not working together to serve its particular purpose. When it is corrected, whether by its internal controls or by an external mechanic–a gear replacement, a little shining, a full reboot, it willingly submits. Whatever it takes to make it better.
My increased confidence in my identity became evident in two things: 1) my art–in writing, and 2) the way I project myself to others.
As I type this, my hands express a telling vigor because it moves me deeply to deepen my introspection, enabling me to express myself more accurately without the need to filter or mitigate my thoughts for the wrong reasons.
1) A profound sense of liberty dawned on my creative expression. I was a rustic fruit–its thick and dirty layers slowly peeling away, leaving only a golden seed–a fresh start–that is thrust in the soil to germinate anew. I am no longer at the mercy of external pressure to create out of a desire for an audience. Although it had been my position since the beginning (of my creating through words), only recently did I begin to fully embrace this passion–with full confidence and full acceptance that there might never be a large audience for my writing. Despite that, it will be okay, because I write for myself, and the moment I take that to heart and rally all my energies toward making that happen, my art will begin to flourish. I needn’t have a clear goal. I just need an orientation, a North Star, knowing that I can always turn to it whichever winding path I go down on, whichever detour I wish to take.
Since I have ‘set my writing free’, I have constructed a magnetic pull for uncanny ideas. Creativity seems to pour in at most unlikely moments, and I, as much as possible, make it a point to grab valuable thoughts by the tail before they run away and vanish. The artist is never fully confident in his work, in a sense that he knows it will always be far from sublime, rather, he likes what he created enough to accept the imperfection, and thus, shares it with the world, without expectation. The joy in the process is enough to fill his spirit.
2) When dealing with people, I desire to be genuine–aligned in principle, thought and action, carefully examining the way I respond. I am highly careful of responses that are strongly influenced by social pressure in the heat of the moment, which causes my conscience to scold me hastily. I question common perceptions that range from impractical to dangerous. As much as possible, I try to unpack layers of thought and rationalize before conveniently accepting a principle, because it causes tremendous repercussions when translated into action.
Nothing in my trip moved me more than the people I met did.
What about them affected me so much, causing me to refine some parts of myself? It is mainly their authentic individuality. They don’t fashion their behavior out of social pressure. They’re unafraid to speak out their opinions, at the same time, to listen to ideas completely unlike their own. Their curious attempts to get to know me forced me to think about the things they ask about. Most importantly, they shared with me unfamiliar perspectives on familiar things and discussed with me topics I have never pondered on in my entire life. They make me wonder, I’ve always known myself to be peculiar in certain ways, why am I ashamed of being that out in the open? Why am I so used to filtering myself?
Since then, I have said goodbye to insecurity. I gave up comparing myself to other, more accomplished, more wealthy, more intelligent people. I have a combination of abilities unique to myself, and I decide to sharpen those God-given gifts rather than question the lack of other characteristics. I will relish the opportunities my strengths allow me to pursue. For the first time, I became fully content to be myself.
Upon wandering along the settings of the Renaissance–admiring its beautiful pillars, painted ceilings, and orchestra pieces, I underwent a Renaissance of my own–a grand exploration of my nature, a period of questioning and aligning with myself through frequent internal dialogue.
I wouldn’t call it a spiritual experience. It was rather an extended honeymoon with my thoughts.
It seems like there is some truth (about myself, about others, about the world) waiting to be discovered in each novel environment I find himself in. As if, upon my immersion, I pick up a puzzle piece that better completes the picture of my ideal identity–the best version of myself I could be. This time is special because I picked up the central chunk of the puzzle. Gaining clarity enables me to boldly say no to self-talk and endeavors that don’t encourage my life-long pursuits.
Staying put in one place leaves one at the mercy of its society’s dictations and keeps him from discovering what he is truly capable of in the presence of novel opportunities and meaningful encounters. Although knowledge is important, nothing can be more powerful in shaping hearts and minds than human experience. Thus, I have for the reader two things: 1) if you have yet to travel on your own in a foreign place, then a part of yourself is waiting to be discovered. Whether you could live with that is entirely up to you. And 2) if you have the privilege to travel but have not yet done so alone, and with full open-mindedness, then you have not fully embraced the riches such experience can bring. Whether you could live with that is entirely up to you.
Throughout my short stay, in the face of cultural and social unfamiliarity, I formed a steep learning curve of invaluable knowledge, emotional intelligence, and self-assurance. I acquired in a month’s time what might have been a year’s worth of realizations had I kept the status quo. And for that, I am grateful.