The Personality Of A Traveler

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Personality of a Traveler

By Nancy Lewis

We all have different personalities in different situations. Or rather, we show different parts of our personalities to different people. I find that I am organized and punctual at work, but easy-going and relaxed with my friends. I’m friendly and outgoing at parties, but introspective when I’m alone.

I’ve even noticed that the language I’m speaking changes my personality a little. I’m outspoken and direct when I’m speaking English, whereas I tend to be more indirect and nonchalant when I’m speaking Spanish. In Chinese, I’m much more tentative, probably due to my limited ability in the language. All of these qualities are part of my personality, each becoming more dominant depending on the circumstances.

When I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, where I call home, I was always organizing parties and get-togethers, inviting friends to go out. I headed social organizations in town and even started a Spanish school, which brought like-minded people together in a social atmosphere. There were movie outings, weekend hikes, coffee socials, language exchanges, and potluck dinners galore. My social-o-meter was turned way up.

So when I first embarked on the adventure of being a traveler, I expected to bring that social personality with me. I expected to meet scores of other travelers and share tales with them over glasses of the local swill. I expected to make lots of local friends who would teach me about their language and culture while I taught them about mine. I had hopes of expanding my social circle to the world, embracing everyone that came within reach.

However, after living as a foreigner for over a year now, I’ve discovered that my traveler personality is unexpectedly introverted. That’s not to say that I’m antisocial. I still go out with friends and attend social events where I might meet other travelers. At least once a week, I eat lunch at a noodle shop near my apartment where I happily chat with the owners in my rudimentary Chinese. And I welcome the approach of strangers on the street who want to practice their English with me.

But I find that the volume on my social-o-meter is exceptionally lower. Instead, I enjoy being an observer, sitting and watching people as they go about their daily lives. Although I can experience a lot by engaging with others, when I sit quietly and observe, I perhaps see a truer version of life.

Living in Shanghai is like living in any big city: we have Starbucks & McDonalds, Wal-Mart & IKEA, reliable public transportation and lots of English-friendly restaurants and bars around town. In fact, regrettably, it’s so easy to be a foreigner in Shanghai that sometimes I forget that I live in China.

With all this city life going on around me, I still come in contact with the authentic Chinese way of life daily. I don’t have to go looking for it down some narrow alleyway in the maze of old Shanghai. All I have to do is pay attention. If I just sit and observe life in Shanghai, some pretty amazing things happen.

In spite of the high-speed pace of city life, I see chivalrous Shanghainese men carrying purses for their girlfriends, their arms lovingly wrapped around the ladies’ shoulders. I notice people politely standing to give their coveted subway seat to an older person. And I meet countless people who happily go out of their way to help me navigate this baffling city.

Although most people here are used to seeing foreigners walking around, children are routinely surprised to see me. The younger ones stare at me as I pass them on the street. The older ones are clumsily discrete as they point me out to their mothers in the elevator. Some of the bolder kids come over to take a closer look, wide-eyed at my green eyes and light brown hair. I have even caught some adults giving me a second glance, then quickly trying to hide their interest. I just smile and wave at them, greeting them with a friendly “Ni hao”.

In the mornings I see older people practicing tai chi in the parks. In the evenings, I walk by the same park and see business men and women exercising after work, jogging around the pond or using the exercise machines there. I pass through the scene, a witness to how similar we all are.

As I walk down the street, I am engulfed by a swarm of smells, pleasant aromas of bread baking or soups boiling, mixed in with the stench of old grease and stinky tofu. Inside my apartment building, I stumble into another waft of spices coming from the other apartments on my floor, authentic meals being prepared.

One afternoon, I was sitting at a popular coffee shop, tapping away at my laptop when I decided to take a break to see what was going on outside. As I looked up, I noticed a man and his daughter in the square in front of the coffee shop where I was sitting. He was proudly teaching her to roller skate, she wobbly with hesitation, he stoic and confident for her. She made it a few feet on her own before she reached for him again. Success.

Another day, I stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop. Since it was after the lunch rush, there were only a few people scattered at tables around the shop eating their noodles or patiently waiting for their order to arrive. The shop was quiet except for the gentle schwop of noodles being sucked up as people ate. I soon added my own schwop to the tune, making music in the silence.

At night, I often hear the clack-a-clack of a popular dice game played at the bars mixed in with the rhythms of the music playing on the sound system and the excited chattering of the Chinese patrons who have come to relax with friends. Sometimes I try to bridge the gap by offering a stilted sentence in Chinese to the next table. I always get an appreciative smile in return.



Nancy Lewis is a freelance writer and traveler, currently living in Shanghai, China. You can read more about her adventures on her blog Wandering Solo.

[“Going Up” by Adam Chang/Flickr; “Noodle Shop” by Jasmine Park/Flickr; “Shanghai Food Market” by Abby’s Mom/Flickr]

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