When living in a country where you can’t speak the language, let alone read it, you can miss the small things back home. Being able to ask random people for directions, or simply making small talk with people while buying coffee. Seemingly insignificant, and maybe it’s not your thing even while home, but you realize how much these small niceties can affect you. It’s the feeling of connection to people around you.
It can still be a challenge to find people with whom you can communicate, have similar interests and habits, and also don’t have to censor yourself around. You know, really close friends. I live in Beijing, and it’s funny to be living in one of the most populous cities in the world and yet still running into the frustrating aspects of living in a small town.
Loneliness is a normal part of long-term travel.
I had been speaking with a friend of mine who appears to be going through a similar problem. They were talking about CrossFit, saying how they liked the feeling of having a group of people they could relate with, who would welcome you whenever you arrive, and would plan outings together. Enter the Cheers theme song here. For me, loneliness comes in ebbs and flows, but there is a general, low-grade level of isolation and alienation that can pervade life abroad. Regarding CrossFit, the cult-like effects that it seems to have on its more devout followers has always been a major deterrent. More on this later.
Crossfit does exist in Beijing, don’t worry about that, but we live in “the sticks” when it comes to western amenities. The closest CrossFit gym is an hour away by subway. To make the ~$300 USD monthly fee worthwhile, you’re going to want to go most days – fuck that after even a normal day at work. The pay, actually, seems to be an intentional form of motivation, invoking the sunk-cost form of commitment; “I paid this much, it must be worth it… or I have to admit that I’m a sucker”. Most people choose to view it as a good investment; how can health be a bad investment? My friend mentioned that the cult-like commitment was also deterring them. The way I see it, the thing they miss and the thing they don’t want are both integrally related. The push and pull of CrossFit is outside fitness; it’s the idea of community.
What role does religion play in society?
For years since losing my religion, I reeled against it. For a while I saw religion as weakness; an inability to face the harshness of the world, opting instead for fantasies. While that still may apply to some people, our brains seem to have evolved to have a place for God and religion. Enter the “New Atheists” and the surge of secularism. Increasing prosperity, education, and liberalization all increase the rate of shaking people free from the grips of conventional religions and can unwittingly deliver them into the arms of the less conventional, but equally role-fulfilling, new religions. Still yet, a good chunk of the newly-secular may simply fall into the listless loneliness of excessive individualism and not fully understand what it is that they’re lacking. It should also be noted that loneliness is not just a bad feeling, it can often be fatal.
Crossfit, environmentalism, veganism, racism, nationalism, science, reason, and even atheism, itself, all mingle and meld together to bring people a sense of community, complete with rules, regulations, and sacred ideas surrounding them. For a relatively recent example of this, look at James Damore (and his memo), the former Google employee who was fired for questioning liberalism’s sacred value of diversity and multiculturalism. I’m not stating a stance on what he said, but clearly even raising questions around this area brought the world down around him. Each of the above-mentioned philosophies have basic tenets that bind its members together and distinguish them from outsiders. In fact, most religions and cults have restrictions around what you can and can’t eat, which is a strong group adhesive (Diet Cults, 2014).
The more restrictions, community pressure, sacrifices, and suffering that are paid to be a member of a particular community, the more worthwhile it is perceived to be. Look at boot camp. Look at hazing. For years, authorities have threatened, punished, and admonished the application of hazing, and yet it appeared to have gotten ever more extreme and secretive. In fact, once people have gone through hazing, they tend to say they think it was highly worthwhile and that it should continue to be employed. A cynic might interpret this as them wanting to pay forward the pain that they already endured; another is that they actually feel more closely tied to the group and see the benefit of hazing as a community tool. You gotta earn your place.
We’ve entered an era where people aren’t bonded together through their religious communities, something that formerly was a glue that held America, and many western nations, together. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the West feels more at odds with itself than ever. Don’t mistake this as a call for the good ol’ days of religious dogma. I am simply pointing out that there needs to be something greater than self-interest that bonds people together, particularly when our modern tribes have grown to the hundreds of millions. For an atheistic approach, look at how China uses exceptionalism, language, and major secular holidays to keep the nation together – the world’s largest yearly migration is Chinese New Year, and it’s not tied to any religion. Their national pride has kept them together for a long time, as did the belief in the communist ideals. Now that communism has faded, problems of unity seem to be popping up more frequently. Again, I’m not recommending this form of government intervention and conscious culture-shaping, but liberals do need to see that rapid change and individualization can quickly create more rifts between the ever-expanding number of distinct groups (Righteous Mind, 2012).
Travel has a special form isolation.
Theory of mind is the idea that others have mental lives as rich and deep as the ones we experience. Who we apply “mind” to and how far it extends is worth thinking about. I never had much experience with the idea until I started looking at my current surroundings. I’m stared at nearly everywhere I go; I’m a 6’7” white guy in China. It can be annoying, but the more different they are from me, the less it bothers me. This is not a conscious choice. I simply care less about what these random strangers – people who share neither nation, belief system, nor tongue with me – thought. The more like me they are (or high-value from a western perception: young, attractive, and most importantly Western-styled) the more it would bother me. I remember hearing about a study looking at the distance people left between them and the person in front of them while waiting in line. The more similar they appeared the less space was left. They were more comfortable.
There’s an attractive person in front of you. You decide “to hell with it, I’ll go talk to them” in a ballsy attempt to get a date. You stride up and say “hello” to which they respond “啥?” First, you’d think damn, well there goes that. But a more subtle shift would take place where you would feel less foolish and less judged. Not sharing a language makes the impact go down, and I propose it has to do with a reduced theory of mind. We subconsciously judge them less capable of judging us.
This isn’t true for those who I interact with regularly. The people I know and have a relationship with, despite the language barrier, obviously have mind. I wouldn’t even call this effect prejudiced, per se, as it’s not linked to race so much as lacking similarity or being unable to relate. The idea is that you couldn’t understand their thoughts even if screamed from a loudspeaker.
Don’t think this is exclusively one-sided, either. Beijing locals seem to largely regard foreigners as disabled. This is understandable given that most can’t read anything nor speak the local tongue. Imagine how contemptuous service industry employees would be if an entire group of people couldn’t even read English when trying to place an order. If you go to McDonalds or equivalent restaurant in Beijing, they’ll pull out the picture menu so you can simply point. Supposing you can actually string a sentence together, they’ll applaud you for your incredible intelligence. That is unless you look Chinese – then there’ll be quite a number of negative reactions to you being “fake Chinese”. As well, I’ve heard stories where fluent, foreign-looking, Mandarin speakers will be ignored when they try to speak, with the local turning to the Asian person of the group (if there is one).
I was once listening to a group of Chinese roommates whispering in Mandarin while one roommate was absent. I asked what they were saying about the missing roommate. They were amazed that I was able to work out that they were gossiping. Doing anything mildly intelligent will usually bring about remarks of surprise and awe. In other words: they also have a problem fully extending mind to us.
It’s the small things that make you feel like you’re part of a community.
What I’m getting at: it’s difficult to feel like you’re part of a community when you’re, well, not. You’re an outsider, literally and figuratively. My social title is wài gúo rén – literally “out country person”. Foreigner. Outsider. Most of the time, it’s alright. Though after a good 4-6 months there’s a wall where you can feel the need to get out and be somewhere that you have a voice, even if it’s in simple interactions like asking a salesperson their opinion on what to buy. Small, stupid banter no longer feels so small nor stupid.
The point is that these small connections make us feel part of something outside ourselves. Bigger than ourselves. It’s why we join organizations at large personal sacrifice, or are attracted to certain movements. We need to fill a hole with community – we’re social beings. But not just any community, a community we regard as having mind. In order to have fully-endowed mind, communication may be a required ingredient. For my personal situation, it is also made worse by working too much. In “Lonely at the Top”, Thomas Joiner discusses how the behaviours that help in business and career can end up isolating people in their success. Maybe the answer is balance. But in following this path it has given me insight into loneliness, and maybe isolation itself is the temporary price to unlock long-run freedom and a greater ability to connect.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice, fellow travellers, and how you deal with the loneliness that can come from long-term travel.
- Diet Cults – Matt Fitzgerald (2014)
- The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt (2012)
- The Mind Club – Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray (2016)
- Lonely at the top – Thomas Joiner (2011)