When you think about foreign countries, what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s monuments and museums, delicacies and diversions. But when you move beyond the things tourists go out of their way to see, the bulk of what happens in any given country is everyday life. Most people aren’t going to the Eiffel Tower or enjoying high tea or taking a narrated tour down a canal. Most people are just going about their lives – sleeping, eating, trying to make a living.
There’s been a slew of photojournalism features floating around the Internet that show people around the world in their everyday lives. For example, a recent series compared the daily diets of people across continents, social groups and economic classes. These series take seemingly mundane daily experiences, and show how many differences there are in the simplest things. Do you think that hard about your choice as you reach for your daily Cheerios? Probably not, because it feels like a given that you’d eat cereal, and a given that you’d pick Cheerios. But when you look at pictures of breakfasts around the world, you remember that very little is a given. We all have defaults, many of them culturally-derived. Your “normal” is someone else’s “abnormal.”
These series have become popular partly because the photography itself is so striking. The photos tend to be of a single subject, and that subject’s objects or food. The result is vivid commentary on consumerism, on culture, on global awareness. The photo show nuances of lifestyles, and all the different ways you can go through the human experience. They remind us that not everyone lives the way we do, that not everyone has the same preferences, that not everyone has the same priorities. They remind us that even with the internet and world tours and all these things that seem to keep us so connected, we’re still quite out of touch with what “reality” means for a lot of other people out there. How you decorate your child’s bedroom may not feel like a cultural statement to you, but it is. Your daily breakfast is a testament to your defaults. What you drink with dinner speaks to your framing of human needs. But sometimes you need a point of comparison to actually put your own behaviors and preferences into context, especially when the bulk of people immediately around you seem to have pretty similar behaviors and preferences.
My challenge to you today: as you go about the rest of your day, think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Where did those choices come from? How firmly rooted are your beliefs? Would someone around the world find your “normal” to be “abnormal?”
My challenge to you as you travel: try your hardest to get beyond the museums and monuments, and try to learn about what it’s like to truly, really live somewhere else. Where would you buy your food? What would you eat? What toys would your kid use? Would your life look remotely the same?