We are used to the sights, sounds, and pace of our own environment. But what happens when you’re thrust into the hustle and bustle of a completely different locale? As someone who’s fortunate enough to have traveled to some exotic places, I discovered it’s surprising how quickly you can adapt to local food, customs, and people if you are open to the full experience. What it requires, however, is an open mind and a willingness to release the expectations that your new location will be like home. As a traveler you may not know how to get around or exactly what’s on that plate the waiter just brought you.
Several years ago I embarked on a 24-hour journey from Atlanta to L.A. and then on to Hong Kong to visit a family member who was temporarily living there. Hong Kong is a crowded, bustling city with modern high-rise buildings packed in tightly amongst old apartment and office structures, rundown shops, and open markets. My first impression was that the place was an assault on the senses. Hundreds of signs were suspended above the street, lights were everywhere, and the shops were packed in side by side with bins of goods jutting out onto the sidewalk. The people were packed in as densely as the buildings. There was no strolling, no personal space, and at times it felt as if there was little room to breathe, especially on the Metro.
Mental preparation was needed each time we left the flat to take on the crowds. It was like New York City on steroids – louder, brighter, and with sights and smells that either tempted your taste buds or made your stomach turn.
As a traveler, all judgment should be suspended and a willingness to sample local foods must take over. After a visit to Mongkok Market and seeing the remnants of an animal head that had been scraped clean of meat, and watching a woman snap a chicken’s neck before stuffing it in a bag for a customer, I was quite hesitant to dine on local fare. But I trusted my family member to guide me through the meals and was more than pleasantly surprised by the fresh, local food. From Chinese to Thai, Japanese to Indian, sampling the truly authentic dishes of the region turned out to be the highlight of the trip.
It wasn’t long before I was navigating the crowded streets with comfort and looking forward to my next meal. Soon the cacophony of voices, cars, and local music, the explosion of colorful signs, and the busy pace of the city began to feel more familiar…I was no longer the wide-eyed traveler. I found beauty in the raw, almost harsh street scene and I found pleasure in the fresh food being served, even if I wasn’t entirely certain of the ingredients.
I am no Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods” TV fame, but I was willing to order some unfamiliar and, yes, even weird dishes. The slippery noodles served with equally slippery ingredients (that I could only guess had been very recently fished out of local waters) and the dishes of more familiar meats and vegetables were an out-of-this-world experience. On occasion some gesturing and pantomiming had to occur just to order a dish or select groceries for home-cooked meals, but the fresh ingredients were worth the effort.
There is a transformation that comes from immersing yourself in local food and culture. You can resist the unfamiliar ways and long for the comforts of home, but then why travel? Or you can surrender to the reality that you are in another place and should soak up what’s being offered.
If you don’t have the opportunity to travel abroad, you can still embrace the mind-set of a traveler. Become more adventurous with what you eat, take note of the street scene, and view your own world with a new perspective.