After a grueling two months of studying and several days of test taking, I took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly. Everything was done. My law degree had been officially conferred. The bar exam was over. I just had to wait for my results.
Since I graduated a semester early, I had a few months off before I started my new job with the law firm where I had been a summer associate the year before. So I did what many other law grads of privilege do: I took a post-bar-exam trip around the world while I awaited my results.
China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia. This was my dream trip.
“Well, Australia sounds nice, but I don’t know about those other places,” a friend’s mom said to me at a dinner party.
The inherent bias in her statement was obvious to me but very hard to call out for what it was. Of course, Australia is predominantly white, Westernized and English speaking. But perhaps I was being too hard on her. Maybe she was just intimidated by places where she didn’t know anything about the culture or history. I admit, everything I knew about Cambodia came from a Dead Kennedys song.
I told my friend’s mom that I really wanted to explore areas of the world that would offer a different perspective. It’s true that we can explore the globe, snap photos in front of the wonders, stay in luxury accommodations, and never immerse into the local culture or understand the residents of the places we visit. But world travel offers the explorer an amazing opportunity to learn from others, to celebrate our differences and reflect on the what makes us all so similar. Food and drink. Music and dancing. Love and kindness. A sense of belonging. Struggles. Poverty. Corrupt governments. Pollution. Progress. Hope. These things unite us in the human experience.
My favorite memories from that trip to Southeast Asia include sharing fish soup and lao-lao with locals in Luang Prabang, sharing a moment of deep reflection on the Mekong River with a new friend and travel mate from Brazil, and talking to a Thai woman about our different experiences facing gender barriers in Thailand and America. I saw the wonders: The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and Ha Long Bay, just a few hours’ drive from Hanoi. These places made a lasting impression on my memory, but it’s the people I met along the way that will stay in my heart forever. More importantly, my trip to Southeast Asia made me stop fearing the unknown. I felt empowered to travel the whole world and to do it with respect and an open mind.
I met my husband in California on my way back to the East Coast from that journey and our love of travel and adventure cemented our bond—it also helped that we grew up 45 minutes away from each other in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The relatability of our roots and our desire to explore the unknown are what keep us tied to each other and the world around us.
We’ve been exploring Central and South America for the last six years and have absolutely fell in love with the regions. Just like my friend’s mother who was skeptical of my choices for travel destinations, many people have asked me if I felt safe traveling to Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. My answer: “Absolutely.” We do our research, just as we would if we were going to Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. We stay in safe places. We make sure we know how to get around. We learned some Spanish. And what we found in our travels is the most amazing people, beautiful destinations and delicious food.
But you don’t have to travel the world to get a multicultural experience. Food, in particular, can be an important cultural bridge. I can walk across the street and get Salvadoran pupusas or drive two miles to an Ethiopian restaurant for doro wat. I can strike up a conversation with my neighbor in Spanish or ask my coworker what it was like growing up in Sierra Leone. The more I engage in these activities, the more I understand my fellow humans.
Find kindness in your heart. Ask a local business owner about her immigration story—it will blow your mind. Go to a cultural exhibit at your local museum. Ask your server at the Thai restaurant where he’s from (don’t assume he’s Thai). Learn to say hello and thank you in a few languages that are commonly spoken in your community. The more you engage others, the bigger your comfort zone becomes.
The more I travel, the smaller and more accessible the world gets. I’ve learned to honor and celebrate our differences and also recognize that at the core of our beings, we are all one tribe.