Vagabond Tales: How Traveling Helps You Realize You Look Weird

When I was 4 years old I had my picture taken by a large group of Japanese tourists.

While this in and of itself is slightly strange, the curious part of the story is where it happened. I was seated with my family – mom, dad, and infant baby sister – while casually enjoying a lunch of hot dogs on the lawn of the Washington Monument.

Having exhausted whatever amount of historical appreciation you can muster out of a scraggly-haired child, we had taken to more leisurely pursuits such as having a picnic on the grassy lawn. Ketchup packets were opened, a blanket was laid out, and mustard-stained fingertips clutched bright red Coke cans as we washed down the average hot dogs.

Nothing special about this situation at all. Just a family enjoying a casual lunch on a summer day in the nation’s capital.

For some, however, that scene evidently wasn’t so normal. To a gaggle of camera-toting Japanese tourists engaged in a tour of Washington D.C., we were apparently something more. Perhaps it was Yoshi who had the thought first, and he subsequently told Shigeki who told Yuuki that there was one more sight they still hadn’t photographed.

Lenses were pointed, flashbulbs popped, and a chorus of “oohs,” “aahs,” and “hai!” percolated through the curious mob. Eventually, the perplexed look on my father’s face prompted one of them to reveal their fascination.

With a nervous smile and an awkward half-bow, one of the tourists let us in on their sudden fixation:

“You are, American family, yes?”

Apparently, right there beneath the spire of the Washington Monument, our troupe of four civilians had been mistaken for an official exhibit of a hot dog-eating, Coke-drinking, blanket-sitting, American family. To us, this was a normal thing to do. To the Japanese tourists, however, this was worthy of six-dozen photos.When you think about what we take pictures of when we travel, oftentimes it’s of things, which are different than we’re used to, whether it be the landscapes, the sights, the food, or the people.

In fact, among international travelers, human beings who exhibit a foreign culture are often the fixation of many of our photos. We take pictures of Peruvian women in their little straw hats. We take pictures of women who stretch their necks with rings. We take photos of tribesmen in their traditional dress, photos of Europeans in their skimpy black Speedos, and photos of children whose tattered clothing speaks to their unspeakable poverty.

We take pictures of others because they look different than us, and then we go home and we show our friends.

To pull a page from Sir Isaac Newton, however, given that each action has an equal and opposite reaction, not only do people look different to us, but so do we to them.

Think about it. When you were photographing that farmer from the hill tribes of Laos, do you not think they must have wondered what a curious looking Westerner he had found? When you stand a head taller than everyone in Seoul, do children not giggle and the lanky white ostrich that somehow found its way into the city?

As any traveler to remote destinations has experienced, oftentimes we as the foreigner become an attraction unto ourselves. Whether it be the color of our skin, the loops on our pants, or the strange words coming out of our different shaped mouths, when we step into a foreign land we’re not just surrounded by those who look different to us – but we similarly stand out as looking different to them.

Although I’ve been hounded by school children from Slovenia to Korea, the first realization that I was truly an anomaly came at a roadside barber shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Nothing more than a chair on a sidewalk, for the grand total of $2 you can employ a local barber with a handheld mirror to give you a trim. There’s no sink, shampooing, or reading magazines in the waiting lounge. You simply walk down the sidewalk, decide you want a haircut, and plop yourself down in the rudimentary chair.

Easy, right?

If you have straight black hair, yes. If you have curly thick blonde hair, however, there are going to be some issues.

Apparently, although the street side barber had seen his fair share of Westerners running about town, he had never been confronted with the task of actually touching the blonde shag growing atop of their head. Tugging on a ringlet and watching it unfold, it held all the fascination of a child’s first Slinky.

Gathering the three other barbers, the four of them engaged in a street side summit of how exactly to go about shearing the foreign blonde mop. Nearly all native Cambodian hair is straight, and while I am no barber, I would assume it is easier and far less complex.

As the barbers discussed their plan of attack, a group of young children came over to join the party. Multiple little hands reached out to grab the hair, and upon making contact with the coarse blonde curls a number of them retracted their hands as if they’d just touched a hot burner.

“How?” their eyes seemed to ask, “How does that grow on your head and change into that color? Surely you must be radioactive.”

Grasping the complexity of the situation, my wife – who just happens to be a hair stylist – offered to pay the men $3 and cut the strange hair herself. With the same sense of relief as a man who’s just been read a not-guilty verdict, the barber was none too quick to hand over the scissors.

Over the next 20 minutes as she chopped at the mane, the Cambodian version of the barbershop quartet analyzed each move like a football team watching game tape. A finger pointed here, an observation lofted there, and guttural bouts of laughter when they thought about what they would have tried to do.

As the blond locks fell silently to the sidewalk, the same small children scooped them up with a fascination usually reserved for a new kind of toy. They examined them up close, they giggled and threw them on each other, and they placed them on each others heads and imagined what it would be like to be blonde.

Like a young lamb at the center of a sheep shearing show, I had somehow become an attraction in a foreign land.

So while one of the great aspects of traveling will always be experiencing cultures different than our own, the next time you take a picture of a local in his element, think for a second who might be photographing you decidedly misplaced from your own.

[Photo Credits: Heather Ellison]