Two weeks ago I was sitting in a café on a plaza in Madrid with a couple of Belgian colleagues, a week before that I was having an amazing meal in a tiny town in Pennsylvania. In a couple of weeks I’ll be in London, after a quick stop in San Francisco. I know my travel isn’t normal, but it isn’t the culture shock that gets me, it’s the lack of it. I often get the deja-vu sense that I've been here before...
Back in the late nineties when we were just getting off modems and onto DSL, I would stream the live recordings of a jazz group that played every Friday night in a Tokyo bar -- of course, I was living in Portland, but the Internet lets you do that. The Internet lets you look at the street outside that jazz bar, and it lets you translate things. It's almost like it lets you be there more than being there in person.
I’ve gotten used to being a keyboard tourist. I can swoop around the world on Google Maps and visit the frozen streets of Hong Kong (I say “frozen” because people dont move on street view). I can pull up videos of events at Battersea Power Station in London -- more importantly, I can do that Google word association game of “Pink Floyd album covers… Ah, there it is… Location of Pink Floyd Animals album cover… Okay, Battersea…”
The weird thing is that actually getting on a plane and jumping around the world so quickly is the surreal bit of my life, not laying in bed and casually looking up videos on my phone and displaying them on the TV.
I get frustrated that I can’t highlight text on a menu and have it translated for me. I realize that while I’m in a place like Dusseldorf, I can’t just zoom out and then zoom in on Paris and be there -- it takes a little longer to get from point A to point B when you’re actually at point A.
I get less culture shock from actually being in the culture than I get from not being online. Of course, business travel smoothes out culture; the Sheraton Miyako isn’t exactly old world Nippon. Travelling by jet means you don’t really experience the trip -- the inside of any Delta 767 is pretty much like any other Detla 767 (and the ham and cheese sandwich is the same an hour outside of Amsterdam as it is an hour outside of Tokyo).
Yes, some of my lack of culture shock is the ease of globalization. As you would expect, there are a lot of Toyotas in Japan. And there are a lot of Toyotas in Madrid. And there are a lot of Toyotas in Pennsylvania.
But some of it is that I almost can highlight text on a menu and get a translation. There’s usually wifi and international data plans are getting cheaper.
So, while I may be in Madrid, or Tokyo, or London, I’ll still have the world in my pocket.