What we leave behind

Paula Lee

USA

 

First, I remember leaving behind my best friend. Throughout my childhood, my immigrant Korean-American family moved a lot. That story of serial displacement is shared by the offspring of diplomats, military brats, and preachers’ kids, and so we inevitably ended up gravitating to each other as adults in increasingly far-flung but predictable settings. Boston. New York. London. Paris. Rome. On the face of things, my new friends and I had little in common, sharing neither playlists nor favourite films, let alone mother tongues or religious beliefs, and our financial situations were often wildly divergent, ranging from penury to obscene wealth. Beneath our chameleon skins, however, our insecurities were painfully similar. Deft speakers and excellent deflectors, we were champions at making new friends and giving them up, at living small and blending in with locals as a form of camouflage. Adapting, always adapting. Out of habit. Sometimes to survive.

That story of serial displacement is also shared by refugees and people of the diaspora. But just as moving from town to town isn’t anyone’s idea of travel, so too does “travel” typically exclude all forms of migration. Subjectively speaking, to travel correctly is to invoke an ontological position expressed by movement from Home to Away and back again, but it must then flagrantly exceed those terms. That excess—the fecundity of first-world wealth and the presumption of political priority no matter where you find yourself— is what separates ‘travel’ from migration, displacement, or deportation. In other words, it is quite possible for the 21st-century bourgeoisie to vacation abroad while remaining ensconced in the embassies of global corporatism, simply by transferring from chain hotel to all-inclusive resort while eating low-budget transit meals at MacDonald’s. Conversely, in a very real sense, it’s possible to travel without leaving your living room through the power of a contrarian imagination. Great writers and artists are perhaps the first travel guides showing us how to navigate the imaginary landscapes inside our restless minds. For great swathes of people living under tyrannical regimes, however, for whom asking questions and challenging authority is not a realistic option, the condition of being away from home begins with the brute lessons of conflict. It starts, in other words, with war.

War, spawning diplomats and armies and chaplains consoling the families of the dead. War, creating wealth over here and poverty over there, and children anxiously seeking to become human bridges crossing yawing socio-economic chasms. War, carving bloody pathways into glittering cities drunk with amnesiac brews, even as travel has become an industry churning out escapist fantasies designed to help us forget exactly how we got here.

And where, exactly, is here? “Here” being a present defined by the global rise of right-wing extremism, terrorism as a way of life, and a refugee crisis on a near-unprecedented scale? “Here” understood as the no-state of Facebook Nation with a voluntary population of billions and its own simulated tourism industry powered by selfies? Somehow, while we were sleeping, all politics became geopolitics, even as ‘here’ became decoupled from place. It no longer signifies a geography, but a technology. A temporality. To be fully subsumed by the tyrannies of ?meatspace? is to telegraph political powerlessness; to experience embodied space as space, keeping your mind in step with your feet, is not merely old-fashioned but tinged with the humiliations of poverty. I’m constantly asked the incredulous question: “How can you live without a smartphone? Who doesn’t have the internet?” Answer: lots of rural people don’t have either and function just fine, but to reject these systems is to put yourself in a position defined by its lack, illustrating just how pernicious are the forces of capitalism as a mindset.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up with consciousness hooked online, the body reduced to a vessel as the transported mind wanders the internet, shaping a new epistemology of travel as the accidental byproduct of a social network simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Even as augmented- and virtual-reality devices accelerate into the mass marketplace, the idea of travelling without physically leaving your living room will become, in a performative sense, truer than ever, even as the idea itself becomes politically and philosophically devoid of meaning. A spiritual vacuum masquerading as epiphany. The illusion of perfect autonomy as being preferable to actual autonomy—the quest for which, in real life, will disappoint, and sometimes fail.

How we think and write about travel must correspondingly revise itself to consciously challenge the lure of a historical fantasy, lest we all of us end up in a place none of us want to be. Consider that Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century classic, Gulliver’s Travels, was not only a satire of travel writing but a political critique so trenchant that he feared being prosecuted for his words. Over time, Gulliver’s Travels lost its political message and became simplified into a bestselling fairy tale, for commodification rewards blandness. The counter? Seek out the overlooked, and prioritise the margins. In today’s globalised environment, the task is to reinvent travel as the embodiment of radical questioning— radical precisely because it insists upon presenting in the form of inconvenient and wobbly flesh— even as we bring back intimate histories of new and old friendships rooted in the full panoply of human experience. Stories of people who are adapting, always adapting. Out of habit. Sometimes to survive.