Traveling Without a Map

Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #6 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.

The other night,  after cleaning up the dinner dishes, R and I went to the ale house around the corner for a beer. The evening air was gentle, a welcome change from Walla Walla’s oppressive summer heat, so we took our beers out to the patio and sat.

“What will it take,” R asked me teasingly, “to convince you to go live with me in another country for a year?”

R has always been the one in our relationship most eager to travel. This should be no surprise to anyone who knows the two of us. On our summer trip to Alaska last year, she heard the flight attendants’ pitch about the airline-branded, air mile-rewarding credit card, and if she wasn’t signed up by the time we touched down in Seattle, it only took a couple of days. Now, at least once or twice a month, I’ll get excited messages from her about some great deal on flights to Mexico. I’m fairly certain that at any given moment, she has at least two or three possible trips percolating in her mind.

But me? I’m a homebody through and through. I take solace in the familiar, in carving out a space and comfortably inhabiting it. It’s not that I dislike travel, it’s that I don’t ever think about it. Give me two weeks off and a couple grand, and my first thought would be to save most the money and relax at home or in Portland–not hop on a plane.

I thought about R’s question, shrugged, and sipped my beer. “I dunno.”

Containing Multitudes

You might think this general apathy toward travel uncharacteristic of me. After all, I’m always going on about humanism and rich experiences and finding adventures and telling stories–what better way to experience that than travel? And hey, didn’t I live abroad for a year and do a lot of travel then? Haven’t I referred to that as one of the most important, transformative years in my life? What’s all this about, then?

And you know what? You wouldn’t be wrong. It does seem oddly out of character for me to be so apathetic about traveling the world. It doesn’t really make sense to me either. On some level, I recognize that I want–or at least should want to travel. I know that it would be fun and rich and rewarding. It’s the sort of thing I probably ought to do.

In fact, there are days and contexts that make me desperately want to travel. Hanging around with my best friend and travel companion from Japan, Sam? It stirs up that wanderlust. I see Instagram photos from my friends who are teaching English on the JET program, and I want to drop everything and move back to Kyoto. There are circumstances here and there, like cleverly hidden clues to a puzzle, that I occasionally stumble across, the discovery of which sets my adventuresome spirit to glowing again.

But when I’m not in the mood, travel’s just another “take it or leave it” thing for me.

What can I say? I am large, I contain multitudes.

Piss Off, Po-Mo

I asked R to provide me with some of the reasons she wanted to travel, just out of curiosity. Among the fairly typical reasons she cited–experiencing culture, seeing sights, getting an outside perspective–she shared with me a particularly thought-provoking one. As she told me, traveling to distant countries, meeting people, and hearing their stories was, on a very fundamental level, her way of understanding and interpreting the world. Not only did she want to travel, it seemed as though she felt she, as a person with the means to do so, almost had a duty to travel, to better understand things and be a better global citizen.

As I thought about what she said (and what I inferred), I felt two things. First, I felt her words ringing hollow for me. Although they made total intellectual sense, I simply couldn’t connect with them on an emotional level. My heart wasn’t waving the travelers’ banner and singing anthems of global awareness–it was just sitting there, pumping blood in its terribly pedestrian way. Second, I felt my sophomore-year self, three years in the past, sourly flipping me the bird. I had become that which I once despised.

Angry past self

Backstory: Fall semester of sophomore year, I took a course entitled “Community in Japanese Film and Fiction” (or something like that). It was an awesome class, blending a foreign literature/film lens with a sociological look at Japanese culture and society, and not only was it rewarding during the semester I was enrolled, but every semester afterward, the knowledge I gained in other classes continued to deepen my appreciation of all we discussed in Japanese Fiction and Film.

But the one thing I hated in that class–the thing I despised with a fiery, burning passion–was fucking postmodernism.[ref]If it pleases you, feel free to imagine “fucking postmodernism” as distinct from simply “postmodernism”. It isn’t (in this case), but I’m all for liberally interpreting language for laughs.[/ref]

Many of our class discussions centered around postmodernism. At the time, I understood postmodernism to be the pinnacle of intellectual masturbation–wishy-washy relativism that used too many big words and too much ink to explore concepts that had little to no bearing on normal human life. It seemed to me a pointless philosophical exercise, like speculating about whether the universe was actually real (because if not, how would you knooooooowwww?). That, and postmodernists were always talking about how the grand narrative was dead, leaving us all in an aimless, anomic[ref]This is one of my favorite words. It comes from anomie, the term popularized by French sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe a state of normlessness. An anomic society is one with no clear norms or direction. It’s also a letter away from anemic, which seems fitting.[/ref] society.

Plus, I was really sick of hearing about “the subject”. What does that even mean?

Postmodernism kept coming up because numerous authors and scholars had posited that Japan was a firmly postmodern society. Japan’s defeat in World War II thoroughly unseated any faith in the supremacy of the Emperor, a narrative that had been part of the country’s character for thousands of years. Globalization further unsettled Japan’s culture, and by my sophomore year in college, there had been decades of cultural critiques trying to make sense of the country’s supposedly anomic existence.

Me? I was so sick of hearing about the death of the grand narrative, I swore if the topic came up again, I’d… I dunno, do something drastic and violent.[ref]Y’know, like someone living in a postmodern, anomic society might do, thinking it was an appropriate outlet for their inner turmoil.[/ref]

Let’s return to the other night. Sitting outside, sipping beer, and talking travel, I realized with sudden clarity that I had become the postmodern subject I once despised.[ref]New shirt idea: “THE POSTMODERN SUBJECT YOUR MOTHER WARNED YOU ABOUT”[/ref]

The Abyss Stares Back

I am the normless, aimless postmodern youth, and I think I’ve had this condition for over a year. Graduating from college was a momentous achievement, but it left me without a goal. I didn’t have a career in mind. The trappings of the American Dream–a house, a family, comfortable income–hold almost no sway over me. I see owning a house as an invitation to consumerism and a terribly risky investment. A middle-class income seems like an ever-retreating goal as our corporate oligarchy widens the gap between the rich and the poor.

Travel, that thing you’re supposed to want to do in order to be a better global citizen–it doesn’t entrance me. I don’t identify with that grand narrative of global citizenship. In fact, in a perverse way (and trust me, I know how this sounds), I’m fundamentally skeptical of those widely accepted stories we tell. The more people repeat it (I KNOW I KNOW), the more I distrust it.

I realize this might sound like a horribly bitter and miserable way to live, but it’s not! Not really. In fact, I find it very consistent with my humanism. I’d wager there’s a good chunk of modern secular humanist philosophy that could be considered postmodernist–though, of course, I’m not a licensed postmodernist by any means.

Postmodern License

After all, my humanism says that there is no meaning inherent in the world, only that which we create. It values human experience and relationships, and is unafraid to be iconoclastic. And as a human-focused, iconoclastic philosophy, it’s enabled me to confidently reject norms that don’t fit me in order to lead a happier, more authentic life. Why hold yourself to a grand narrative that doesn’t work for you? Chalk one up for postmodernism.

I don’t believe that postmodernism is inherently gloomy or pessimistic. (My final paper in my Japanese Film and Fiction class, in fact, was titled “Positive Postmodernism”.) However, it’s equally foolish to understand it as a purely liberating philosophy, only bringing joy and it’s personal understanding. Living without a grand narrative is traveling without a map. At its best, it allows me to see life the way I want to see it, without bowing to interpretations or rules I never agreed to. At its worst, however, it provides me with no guidance or direction when I’m lost, making it my sole responsibility to find a way out.

Anyway, I’m sure R will eventually convince me to go on some wild international adventure with her, and I’m sure I’ll love it. That’s how it goes with us postmodernist types–we’re always overthinking things.

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