erin el-tawil traveling humbly japan

How Moving to Japan Taught Me to Travel Humbly

Most Wanderful women would agree that we should all travel humbly. But what does the word humble actually mean, and what does traveling humbly look like in practice?

The word humble comes from the latin word humilis, meaning low. According to Merriam-Webster, to be humble means to not consider yourself special or more important than others. So, to travel humbly — or, with humility — means to acknowledge that your insight of a culture and its customs is less than the locals around you.

One way to help us to put traveling with humility into practice is to think of ourselves as guests visiting someone else’s home.

Whether we are visiting a foreign country or visiting someone else’s home, we will come into contact with a way of life that is different from our own.

erin el-tawil traveling humbly japan

Sometimes this new way of life is exciting and thrilling. Other times it can challenge us.

It’s okay if this new way of life makes us uncomfortable, frustrates us, and makes us homesick. As seasoned travelers already know, travel isn’t always as glamorous as people make it out to be on Instagram. Our reaction to these feelings is how we show if we are traveling with humility or not.

I have been traveling and living in Japan for the past four years, and I have had plenty of experiences practicing humility in this time. I’ve also had plenty of experiences failing at it.

The most frustrating travel experiences for me have been those that challenge what I know about gender inequality.

I never realized how much of a feminist I was until I left the United States. I grew up with two sisters and no brothers. All throughout my childhood, my mother would make my sisters and I repeat after her over and over again: “I am a woman and I can do anything.” As an adult, I believe it with every ounce of my being.

erin el-tawil traveling humbly japan

It was moving to Japan that changed how I will travel forever.

Not long after I first relocated, a group of young women who I was working with invited me to participate in a dance they were performing at the bonenkai end of the year work party.

Of course, I said yes. I was so happy to be included by them despite my still new presence and poor Japanese, and I was hoping to make a few friends. My first few months in Japan had been very lonely. This made me feel like I was finally fitting in at the office.

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We met after hours for weeks to practice the choreography of the popular J-pop song “Love Revolution.” We laughed at some of the more impossible moves and, despite the hours of practice we put in, I don’t think we ever managed to get the routine down perfectly. But we sure tried.

At the bonenkai, two other groups performed before us. Watching them take the stage, suddenly everything clicked into place. I realized that each group was organized intentionally.

The first group’s members were all the young male staff. The second group’s members were the young and married female staff. Our group’s members were all the young female staff who were unmarried.

erin el-tawil traveling humbly japan

I was overwhelmed with dread. I didn’t want to perform for all our older coworkers as if I was on display. I kept thinking to myself that this would never be allowed back home. This was a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen!

I spent the minutes before our performance thinking about what the right decision for me would be.

My first option was to explain why the situation made me uncomfortable and refuse to perform. I might cause some tension, but I’d keep my integrity.

My second option was to make up a lie and try to get out of it.

My third option was to suck it up, keep the atmosphere light, and do it.

I thought about it, and ultimately decided to go ahead with the performance.

During the performance, I tried to remember the happiness I felt at being included in this group of people. I tried to remember all the fun we had had while practicing together. And I tried to ignore the teachers taking pictures of us.

Even though doing the performance made me feel initially uncomfortable, not doing it wasn’t worth the risk of breaking the bonds that I had just started forming with my coworkers.

erin el-tawil traveling humbly japan

This was my own personal choice and even now, three and a half years later, I stand by it.

My coworkers’ intentions were to include me, to make me feel welcome, and to try to connect with me despite our language barrier. It never crossed their minds that there was anything wrong or inappropriate happening. By looking at the situation from their point of view, I saw how, to them, there was nothing wrong with what was going on.

If I had chosen the first option, it would have been as if I was a guest invited into someone’s home who was so offended by the arrangement of their furniture that I needed to leave.

Was it really worth alienating my coworkers by refusing to participate?

For me, it wasn’t.

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For you, the answer might have been different. We all have different life experiences and comfort levels, and that’s okay. Maybe you would have gone with the second option, or tried a combination of one and two.

Traveling humbly doesn’t mean that we should contextualize our experiences abroad through the lens of the culture we grew up in.

It means that we must open our hearts and minds as much as is possible to get as much as we can from wherever we are in the world. It means being respectful in the way that we, the guest, communicate with our host (or interact with our host culture or country). It means choosing to see another’s intention and perspective before choosing our reaction.

By choosing to travel humbly, I was able to look past my own perspective and begin friendships that are now very important to me. My experience in Japan wouldn’t have been the same without those relationships.

erin el-tawil traveling humbly japan

We must remember that when we travel, we are guests, and we should try as hard as we can to take in our experiences with gratitude.

Traveling humbly isn’t always easy or comfortable. In fact, it’s often a daily struggle. But it matters. Because putting up impassable walls of right and wrong will only keep us from understanding everything that our world has to offer.


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Have you had an experience while traveling that tested your values? Share in the comments!

Images courtesy of the author.

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