Why travelling “for fun” is overrated (by O)
Thoughts on travel from a third-culture kid (by X)
On my first flight at the age of 25, my friends expected me to behave like a baby seeing the world for the first time: wide-eyed, incredulous, drooling from my half-open mouth. One of them magnanimously gave up his window seat because he believed that I, an airplane virgin, should be looking out the window shaped like a toilet bowl, awestruck from the literal high.
After we landed in Penang, my friends asked me how the flight was. I let out a mock yawn and said, “Overrated.” This sums up how I feel about overseas travel.
The first time I sat on a plane, I was less than a year old. For the next 25 years of my life, I flew an average of twice a year, landing in more than 18 countries and dozens of cities. Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok, London – the list goes on. Much of this was a matter of circumstance. My father had a job that took him to different parts of the world, which meant that every few years we’d uproot ourselves, pack our bags and trail along.
As a former “third-culture kid” – a child raised in cultures different from the ones her parents were raised in – I don’t feel a strong desire to travel. This might be because I’ve already spent half my life actually living in foreign countries.
X considers me a born-again airplane virgin.
“It doesn’t count,” X says. “Flying from Singapore to Penang isn’t a flight, it’s a glorified bus ride.”
Apparently, being thoroughly unimpressed isn’t enough. For it to count, the flight needs to last longer than the theatrical version of The Return of the King. I have to sit through turbulence, fear for my very life, eat several mediocre meals, and maybe defecate while in mid-air.
Short overseas trips – the only sort I can afford at the moment – barely scratch the surface. They tend not to teach me more than what I could have learnt by reading a book, watching a documentary or befriending someone from those parts. I’ve paced the ancient streets of Pompeii, wandered into ruined villas and seen the famous “cave canem” (beware the dog) mosaic with my own eyes – and yet, I found out so much more about its history from an hour-long Mary Beard documentary on YouTube, which contained interviews with experts and took viewers into areas normally cordoned off to tourists.
I’ve long seen travelling as a means to an end: a university degree, a chance to catch up with friends (I’m in long-distance friendships with most of them), or doing an overseas stint for work.
If the social media posts of many Singaporeans during the pandemic are anything to go by, people are homesick for another country. They are despondent because a ride on a metal, greenhouse gas-farting bird happens to be just out of reach. On Facebook, they reply to posts of tourist attractions with crying emojis, and share old selfies they took years ago saying they miss climbing some mountain. They then copy and paste the same laments across Instagram and Twitter.
Holiday trips that didn’t fit into those categories – the one to Pompeii, for instance – were mainly for the purpose of “widening my horizons”, or, if we are to be clinical about it, gathering micro-samples of smell, taste and touch – the way the air smells in frosty temperatures; the spray of the sea in an English coastal town; the mix of taxi fumes and barbequed meat on the streets of Bangkok. So that one day, while armchair travelling, I might imagine these scenes all the more vividly from afar.
Based on what I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances over the years, Singaporeans who talk about their travel experiences generally fall into two camps.
The first is full of people who seemed to fly to some South-east Asian country almost every week, and came back only to tell all their friends how cheap the things in those places are. Malaysia is the usual punching bag due to its sheer proximity, with people driving over all the time just to top up their petrol because it’s that much cheaper. Forced to listen to the Singaporean caws of “So cheap! So cheap!”, it’s no wonder people in the region hate us but pretend to like us (in Malaysia, some robbers specifically target Singaporeans). They probably enjoy the schadenfreude that comes from watching us lap up overpriced made-in-China souvenirs.
The second group are those who have more refined tastes, opting for the capitalistic excesses of Japan and South Korea or the mould-infested ruins of Europe, jumping from tourist trap to tourist trap. Even the malls they visit sell the same stuff from the same brands. These people come back and complain about how these other countries are better than Singapore.
“The view in Hokkaido is so gorgeous, not like Singapore, only HDBs and car parks everywhere.”
“German beer is so good, not like Singapore. Aiyah, I can’t describe it, it’s just good.”
“Wah, British men are so sexy, I melt when I hear their accent. Not like Singaporean accent, so disgusting.”
I’d much rather imagine travelling than do it in real life.
Despite singing the praises of other countries so often, these people somehow never move out of Singapore.
In imagination there is no tedium. One does not have to book a flight, pack a suitcase, or pay for a host of privileges – decent leg room, for one – that would be a given on land.
It would also spare me the visceral fear of crashing to my death, something that arises at the slightest sign of turbulence. I’m not religious, but there’s nothing like a bumpy plane ride to get me clutching at the feet of imaginary gods, vowing to be a better person if I made it out alive.
What these two groups have in common is their use of travel as a way to fill some kind of existential void. Travel feeds into the delusion of a broader horizon and deeper understanding while often achieving neither. As far as I’m concerned, wanderlust is a sin.
For the cost and effort required, travelling is not worth it.
With the internet and modern technology, there’s really no need to spend hundreds of dollars on flight tickets, hours packing and unpacking in hotels that cost even more, and carrying kilos of luggage around just for experiences that can be replicated to varying degrees in Singapore. Besides, it doesn’t offer an escape from my life when I’ll still be trapped in the prison of my flesh and self-loathing. My bad back will still hurt when I’m overseas. Actually, it’ll probably hurt worse due to all the walking and luggage-carrying I have to do.
When I arrive at my holiday destination, I often feel pressured to squeeze the most out of every minute. I tend to scour TripAdvisor for the best attractions, drawing up an itinerary with as many of these as possible. I once visited a museum in Copenhagen with only 30 minutes to spare, brisk-marching through an entire building while snapping photos of the most eye-catching works. Even on trips where I left room for serendipitous encounters, the whole act of being “on holiday”, and the pressure to feel like I was enjoying myself (wouldn’t want all that money to go to waste, would we?) often left me feeling empty inside. As I wandered through various cities, I felt I was searching for something, something that might bring me to an “aha!” moment or some provoking insight, but I don’t think I ever found what I was looking for.
You’d think budget airlines would have opened up air travel to the masses, but travelling is still, to some extent, the province of the privileged. My parents couldn’t afford week-long vacations, partly due to the birth of a parasite (me), but mostly because they were self-employed. A day of missed work was a day without an income, which made travelling more expensive for them than most people. The farthest they have gone is Johor Bahru, right across the causeway.
Whenever I talk about how the engine roar of a plane doesn’t appeal to me as much as the siren song of my bed, there is always someone who cries out, “But the experience! YOLO! Do it for the experience!”
And yet I’d still travel if I had the chance to. I can’t seem to shake off the notion that it is good for me, much like a visit to the dentist or a 5km run in the park. Perhaps it is about building up a store of experiences – “life and food for future years” – that reveal their purpose only much later.
Yet the same people usually can’t articulate why their travel experiences are meaningful to them. Sure, they can list out all the things they have done: eating pufferfish, bungee jumping, snowboarding, and so on. But these accounts always sound like they are scratching the surface of understanding in a million different ways, instead of reaching deep into another cultural unconscious. Many Singaporeans barely know the many textures of their own home. Besides, torture is an experience, and I don’t see people queuing up for it.
“But you see,” the strawman in my head says, “what is torture for one may not be for another. Some people like hot wax dripping down their back, while others scream.”
They can knock themselves out for all I care, it doesn’t make travel any less overrated.
Travelling may be good for me, but my idea of a perfect vacation is one where I stay at home and simply work on becoming a better person. Reading, practising my Mandarin, meditating… shrugging off the restlessness and learning to be still; learning how to be.