It cost me 436 US dollars to renew my passport. I was planning to do it for half the price when I got home later, but I ran out of pages.
That’s right, I ran out of passport pages.
A fact that I was pretty proud about – until it cost me a significant amount of time and money which I did need for other purposes.
And it made me think: spending time overseas is a source of pride: well looked upon, and much boasted about. We talk about how great seeing the world is because of the people you meet, the lessons you learn, the priceless experiences you accumulate. (Also, it’s fun.)
But there is an almost mystical quality attached to travel that is worth reanalysing.
I always said that one of the great and truly valuable things about spending time overseas is you learn more about yourself, about who and how you really are. You get perspective.
You learn that you are attractive to the opposite sex.
You learn that you are good at things.
You learn that you’re interesting.
You learn that your privileged childhood has shaped you for better or for worse.
You learn that you are stronger than you believed – or you learn to be strong.
You learn that you can make a difference.
You learn that friendship can be temporary and sweet at the same time.
You learn what home means to you – or that the word “home” doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Well, these are the things I thought I’d learned.
Yet I’m starting to feel I need to unlearn most, if not all, of this. Not because any of it is wrong, per se. But what about those who haven’t travelled – because they can’t afford to, or because they stay home and do cool things there? Are they ignorant? Are we wanderers any wiser, any more informed, any more self-aware than they are?
Being “well-travelled” deludes you into thinking you know yourself (and the world, and people in general) better. Like when you backpacked for six months, or when you volunteered for two years, you were somehow attaining a higher level of self-fulfillment.
But am I really the best judge of who I am?
And then there’s what other people say about me. To those in my destination country, I’m the cool foreigner who speaks their language, with that cute and impossible-to-place accent. To those in the country I left behind, I’m the one who travels – the adventurous one; I’m the missionary, the justice fighter – the inspiring one.
But do what other people say or think about me determine my identity and self-worth?
Both benchmarks are such relative standards, vulnerable to the highs and lows of life. When things are good, I am on top of the world. When things take a turn for the worse, when I find myself alone and wondering what is it I’m doing here again because things aren’t going to plan – who am I then?
When my ministry is falling apart – who am I? When I’m not even actively involved in ministry (heaven forbid!) – who am I? When I come home and I’m no longer the interesting foreigner (but not quite local anymore) – who am I?
My identity is an evolving concept, a work in progress. Up to a point, travel casts light on different aspects of what I am like and the direction I am taking in my life. The time that I spent in Spain, in Ecuador, in Bolivia, has undeniably been a significant influence. I wouldn’t think the way I think, do some of the things I do, be the person I am today if not for those formative experiences.
That said, travel in and of itself doesn’t give value to my existence; nor should I define myself by the fact that I have travelled, or by some romantic idea of “the person I have become” as a result of my travels.
I’m not going to lie: it’s great being the cool foreigner, the missionary, the justice fighter. They’re not inaccurate descriptions of who I am and they’re not personas I should deny. But they do not justify my worth as a human being.
Because ultimately, my Maker is the one who gave me value when He created me, and I’ve decided He is the one who defines me.
The more I travel, the more I need to keep reminding myself of this. My identity in my Maker is truer and more constant than any other concept of identity that I create for myself, or that others have created for me.
In the barrage of experiences and voices vying to define me, this truth is all too easy to forget. As a result, I am continuously stripping off the other identities thrust upon me and created by my own ego, and striving to put on Christ.
Adapted from original.
Hsu-Ann Lee was born in Malaysia and grew up in Canberra, Australia, before being led to serve in South America. There, she was the “missionary” working with youth in southern Ecuador and the “justice fighter” sharing the stories of survivors of child sexual violence in Bolivia. Currently based in Sydney, she savours opportunities to speak Spanish, and continues to blog about faith, culture and being a Gen Y expat who doesn’t have it all worked out at http://suansita.wordpress.