Few things are as ubiquitous to the travel experience as the phrase, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” It’s not bad advice. Experiencing how people on the other side of the world do things — whether that’s communal bathing or getting together to tell bad jokes to foreigners — is the whole point. Why bother going to China, if you’re just going to hang out at McDonald’s instead of expanding your waistline with the wholly sexual treasure that is the soup dumpling.
If you’re about to hit the road, do so with an empty, open mind. Strip off the tighty whities and relax in the onsens of Yamanakako, with strangers’ dangly bits presented in panorama; stuff yourself with one more stick of the starchy debauchery that is La Banquise in Montréal; black out for a spell with some new friends in Osaka and almost miss your train. Take whatever you can from the local way of doing things. Please, though. Please don’t feel guilty when you need a taste of home.
Being a Roman is Tiresome
Let’s just get it out of the way: try as you might, you’re never going to fully shed the culture you were raised in, and you’ll likely never assimilate completely to whatever new culture you find yourself immersed in. Maybe that’s blasphemy, given how many of us wander so that we can be more than a flag. No matter where you go, how long you’re there, how hard you try to be like everyone else, you’ll still be the wonderful weirdo who grew up in a different chunk of the world. That part of you needs to be nurtured.
Immersion is exhausting. The amazing strawberry shaved ice I can get on my weekly grocery trip is refreshing, and yakitori and beer go a long way in sating my taste buds, but sometimes, I just want a toasted cheese, or I just want one of the conceptually hellish but entirely delicious amalgamations of leftovers my mom tosses together. Constantly wanting to hold on to your roots while looking to grow new ones? It’s something like climbing Mt.Fuji with a pack full of boulders. You need a break.
Even Romans Aren’t Doing as the Romans
I’m not saying you should live off of Subway and imported Budweiser. Actually, no matter where you are, avoid those things. Romans, Japanese, French — name a people. Chances are they’re no longer doing just the things for which they’ve been stereotyped. Japanese people eat a ton of Kentucky Fried Chicken, particularly when it’s time to start singing about silver bells. No more than a 10 minute walk in any direction from my apartment, and I can step into a French-style bakery. Spaghetti in Kyoto, cheeseburgers in Nagoya, dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria!
It’s a more interconnected world than ever, and as technology improves and we’re made to face the ramifications of a changing planet, that will only become truer. So, please, eat those chicken feet in Manila, but don’t hold yourself to this silly, naive standard. Get a taste of your hometown every now and then. There’s a good chance the locals are.
Have you ever run up against the “do as the Romans” problem? Share your story in the comments below.