Curiosity Begins At Home

People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.

– Dagobert D. Runes

Why is it that so many people reserve their curiosity for new and enlightening experiences on the road while they take for granted similar opportunities just because they happen at home?

Shy Indian Girls - Kerala, India
Curious Eyes in Kochi, India

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve met Bhutanese, Vietnamese and Russian Estonian families. We talked to people from Thailand and El Salvador. We got the lowdown on Iranian politics from a Iranian woman who recently left her home country.

None of these encounters happened on our round-the-world journey per se, but rather during visits to suburban Virginia and Scranton, Pennsylvania. We met these people in cafes, ethnic food stores, my father’s community garden, and in their homes.

So many people dream of travels, plan them to the max, immerse themselves in them, and ex post facto romanticize the life out of them. Then they return home and somehow their habits conspire to shut off their curious instincts just because the vacation is over.

This is the curiosity disconnect.

Curiosity – The What and The Why

For the first time in my life, I looked up the definition of the word “curiosity”: the desire to learn or know about anything.

I understood this. I liked this; it struck me as open and wholesome, unassailably good.

Good – why? Curiosity is important for the practical. Pursuing our curiosity aids our understanding of how things work, it helps us solve problems, it fires new inventions.

In the context of travel, however, curiosity plays a slightly different role. Travel better tunes us into our environment and puts things into perspective. But it does something more: it helps us develop respect for people and places that are different from us.

Dan and the Handwashing Girls - Potosi, Bolivia
With the handwashing campaign girls in Potosi, Bolivia.

Why is this important?

The idealist in me says this: the more curious we are, the more we will seek to understand, and the more we understand, perhaps the less we’ll fear. And the less we fear, pre-judge, judge and misjudge, the better positioned we will be to resolve our conflicts – in ourselves, in our local communities, and ultimately around the world.

Curiosity Abroad vs. Curiosity at Home

The beauty of the faraway place is that it often forces us out of a familiar context, making it easier for us to exercise our senses and stretch our minds. Meeting new people, seeing new places, undertaking new activities, learning new things – all of this seems more or less at our disposal on the road. The context drives our expectation of an unfolding and we remain open to it.

For these reasons, so many people like the person they become when they travel.

But what about when they return home? How can they maintain the same spirit of travel curiosity? More importantly, how can they teach their kids?

We don’t have the answer. Our approach is personal and difficult to distill and translate into some sort of recipe, but we can share a handful of thoughts to get the conversation started:

6 Ways to Keep Your “Traveling Eyes” at Home

1. Talk to people. Ask questions. Listen.

Many of us embrace engagement with and learning from locals while we travel. Why not take the same approach at home? Now, we’re not advocating that you bury people in a monologue. Ask open questions and have an exchange.

2. Eat on the street, go local, go authentic – go different.

Engage the guy running the food truck, drop into the darkly-lit ethnic restaurant – even if only to read the menu. The greasy spoon that you’ve never visited may offer something, too.

3. Shop at foreign food stores.

When traveling, it’s fun and exotic to check out fresh markets and learn about local foods. At home, go to those small ethnic grocery stores with foreign scripts scrawled in the front window. Ask questions on how to use ingredients and spices that are foreign to you.

4. Pursue your travel interests at home.

Whatever interests you while traveling – fresh markets, museums, historical sights, art, wine, etc. – seek it out at home. Visit places connected — even tangentially — to these themes.

5. Go somewhere local that’s new.

Find someplace 15-20 minutes away that you’ve never been. Walk there. And if you must drive there, that’s fine, too. Don’t discount places just because they are nearby.

6. Put on your travel face.

Yep, you guessed it: smile. You’ll be astounded by how many conversations open up when you do.

Why put away your travel glasses – your observation skills, your inner adventurer – until the next trip?

If you are lamenting that your vacation is over, unpack your curiosity, but be sure not to put it away.

———-

What do you think about stoking the fire of curiosity at home? How do you do it? What tips do you have for others?

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Comments

  1. says

    I just wanted to say that although I subscribe to your blog on my reader and enjoy each new post, I rarely comment. I love what you say about curiosity here–I do believe that curiosity is the antidote to fear.

    I love meeting new people and learning about their stories. One of my favorite ways to do this is through food. I always seek out different ethnic restaurants and strike up conversations with patrons and staff. Food seems to be a wonderful and non-threatening ice-breaker. And it always seems to bring out the most fabulous stories about family and culture.

    My 2 teenage sons are also open and curious about the world. It gives me hope.

  2. says

    @LJCohen: Thanks for your comment. The food connection definitely resonates with us. Food is something we can all relate to and it’s about as non-threatening a subject as there is. Invariably, discussions of food lead to culture, family, politics, and just about every other topic. And if you truly share a meal with someone, it’s very difficult to view them in the same light as you did before breaking bread. Having said all that, I specifically didn’t go overboard on the discussion of food since I understand that not everyone is as over-the-moon about food and ethnic cuisine as we all are.

    It’s funny that you mention kids because in my first draft of this piece, I ask: How can we teach our kids (but I overlooked its disappearance in the editing process — thanks Aud!). In fact, I may just add it back in. Writing and editing — it takes a village.

    Finally, I’m glad to hear that your sons are as open and curious about the world as you are (no surprise, given your guidance). Enjoy!

  3. says

    Hi Dan & Audrey- Yet once again you put my thoughts to words! I am now in the States, feeling a bit like an outsider after so much time away, but I’m also enjoying putting the curiosity factor to use here at “home” My family thinks I’m odd (but then, they always did), as I observe, question, and examine things that are routine to them.
    I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed watching my 8-month-old grandson’s curiosity at work… He examines everything, turns it over and over in his hands… then straight into his mouth… Can’t help but wonder if this is something that foodies just never outgrow! Hope he never does!

  4. says

    couldn’t agree more w/ this approach to daily life. When I feel as if I’ve lost my pulse of curiosity, it’s time to open my eyes a little wider and look at something from a new angle… traveling makes us do it, but w/just a little effort and habit, we can see, do and learn new things right outside our doors.

  5. says

    I’ve come across the quote from DD Runes and it hit a nerve! I travel abroad more than people around me and I wondered if I was being superficial thinking that I’m expanding my horizon by traveling and meeting people of other culture when I can expand it by meeting people in my country from different provinces, ethnic group, or social group. I do explore the Philippines (my country) quite often specially (but not only) to scuba dive. It’s a country of 7,100 islands and each has its unique culture, food, and festivities. You may consider checking us out. I went to your WHERE tab and didn’t see us there. :)

    { this reply took a different direction as i wrote it. it sure din begin to be an invitation, what the heck? (”,) }

  6. Dee Dee says

    Great article — and so true!!
    You’ve inspired me to make a greater effort to like people.
    (That’s an inside joke!)
    Love,
    Dee

  7. says

    Such a fantastic post!!! I agree completely. While I feel like I am ALWAYS curious, I do sorta shut it off a bit when I return home. Mostly because I need to focus on work and don’t have time to explore and experience. This post reminded me that I always have time though, so thanks! :)

  8. says

    This is exactly how I feel now. When I first came home from 8 months abroad I felt like all the fun was over but now I’m slowly starting to appreciate everything around me at home and exploring things in my native San Fran that I never did before like volunteering on Angel Island or touring Alcatraz for the very first time after being born and raised here! I always keep my eyes open for trying something new which is one of the best parts of traveling abroad or at home. This is a great post!

  9. says

    Great post guys! I think all people who travel for any extended period of time tend to lose that wanderlust when at home. I think all of the tips that you gave will help anyone keep that sense of curiosity that drives us while on the road. One tip we have found works is try to be a tourist in your own city. It is amazing the things you discover and people you meet when looking at home through the eyes of someone who has never been there. It opens your mind and you inevitably discover something about your city and yourself.

  10. says

    A & D, this post is a great inspiration!

    I read it right after returning home from an adventure with my husband and dog, exploring a neighborhood here in L.A. that we hadn’t spent much time in before. (For the record, it was Eagle Rock, and not at all as exciting as we’d hoped. Oh, well…at least we had good Vietnamese food!)

    Sometimes I wish I could be more of a couch vegetable between trips, but I find it hard to turn off the wanderlust. Maybe I worry that if I sit still long enough, I won’t be able to get up again? :)

  11. Jean Lo says

    Hi guys, I enjoyed reading this post.
    I would like to add one tip into the row of inspiring tips that you wrote:
    8. Read books, listen to music, watch movies.
    My personal curiosity has always been triggered by reading novels which are describing other countries than mine. “Is it really like this in this country?” “What a beautiful landscape!” “What a different view of the world than mine!”

    It got me into countless interesting dialogues with people in “my” country only by mentioning the artist´s names. Most people are proud of authors, musicians, directors etc who tell about their countries and if they don´t, it is an even better opportunity to engage into a discussion and you learn a lot!!
    That´s a simple and enjoyable way of encountering new cultures and keep up curiosity when at home!

  12. says

    @Margaret: I like your use of the word “home” in quotes — I completely understand. As for being weird for examining and re-examining things familiar and unfamiliar, I suppose some of our best-known inventors and thinkers probably felt similarly odd (perhaps I’m attempting to justify our weirdness with this tenuous comparison).

    Forever a foodie, but I’m unlikely to begin putting everything in my mouth.

    @Margo: Exactly. Pulse of curiosity…I like that!

    @Lilliane: I don’t think it’s superficial to believe that travel can expand horizons. But to think of it as the only way — that’s dangerous. But it certainly doesn’t sound like you fall into that trap.

    The Philippines is on the most requested “you should go there” (more like “you should visit my home”) list. We will get there eventually. We’ve heard nothing but great things.

    As far as a replies go, take them in whatever direction they take you…we are thankful for it.

    @Dee Dee: Me, too. I’m laughing out loud.

    @Andi: Shutting off a bit to gather your thoughts when you return home makes definite sense. It’s easy to become saturated with experiences and impressions. When I wrote this, I was thinking more of the people who believe that “home” = nothing interesting to discover. Enjoy.

    @Joya: Nothing like being a tourist in your own town. And as towns to be a tourist in, San Francisco and the Bay Area is as good as any. I lived there for 6 years — and I felt like I could have lived there a lifetime and never fully taken it all in.

    @Dave and Deb: I think it’s common and fair, especially after ranging the world over, to come home and retreat a little bit.

    Be a tourist in your own city (or a tourist in your own town)…that’s the way to go. When we lived in Prague, nothing did a better job of educating us about the place than a visit from a friend who uncovered something else interesting for us to see or do.

    @Melanie: Thank you! Some places may not live up to your expectations, but you’ll never know until you visit. And if the worst that happens is you get some good Vietnamese food, well, things could be worse.

    We like our couch vegetable time. At the very least, we just need some time with my experiences, thoughts and impressions to make sense of them all. If we don’t, we find that we miss some of the most important lessons they can teach us.

    You’ll always be able to get up from the couch — it may just take a little while longer between visits :)

    @Jean: Thanks for your comment. I have found myself thinking on a number of separate occasions that I needed more music, books and movies in my life. And now I read this. I have recently begun reading Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” since it beckoned me from our friend’s bookshelf. And although I’ve been to Paris a number of times, Hemingway’s perspective and moments in time are so different than what I’ve experienced. And this is what makes reading his words (besides his terrific prose) so great.

    It’s true for so many reasons that books, music, and film — and our experience with them — help build so much shared experience.

    Excellent, and for me, quite timely.

  13. says

    another excellent post. i am a naturally curious person who loves to travel and loves all things travel. i always want to know people’s stories. but when at home, in my sheltered environment of WV, it is easy to clam up. for example, i was in church last week and an Indian family walked in. This is not a normal occurrence in my town! I kept stealing glances at them throughout the service and was nearly overwhelmed with my curiosity to find out about them, get to know them. But all i could manage at the end of the service was…Hi, how are you??
    And that was it! Siiigh. Better luck next week. Hopefully!

  14. says

    @Claire: Great story. I appreciate both your curiosity and your hesitation here. Hopefully you’ll see them again and find a way to engage them. Your motivation is a genuine one, so I’m sure they’ll be open to conversation. Have you been to India? Lots of shared experience if you have.

    Every time I return to someplace familiar (say in the U.S. or in Europe), I admit that my curiosity is intact, but my courage to approach people for random conversation or a photograph is a bit more in check. I suppose that’s my sense of what will fly culturally.

    Good luck…I’ll be curious to hear about your opening conversation with them.

  15. Don says

    Hi Audrey & Dan:

    Thanks for your timely reminder about the importance of nurturing curiosity.
    Traveling the road of inquisitiveness seems almost to occur spontaneously in those places we refer to as foreign or distant, but in those places we call local or home there is a danger of overlooking the treasures we have in our midst. Your wonderful attachment about Scranton with its past and present riches and warts is just such an example. Having called Scranton our home for 70+ years we realize how easily that can happen. We seem to have become a miniature United Nations in the past decade almost without knowing it, and, despite some occasional minor glitches, we seem to be enjoying our expanding diversity. Despite its many disappointments and bumps it has been a joyous ride and we know there are still some treasures to be found. I enjoyed your post about and photos of Scranton and will share a few of my own in this section. The comments have been interesting but special kudos to George for his humorous overview. C’mon George, we are waiting for you to write that quintessential play about this unique place we call home.

  16. Heather says

    Hi Audrey and Dan,

    Just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated this article. It was an important reminder to me to remain open and curious about people, places, and things locally. A very good practice indeed!
    Safe travels and thank you,
    Heather

  17. says

    @Don: By George, I think she’s got it!

    @Heather: Great to see you here and thank you for your comment. Am glad to hear that it was a useful reminder. I’ve found that it’s easy to take things for granted particularly when they are so familiar and close to home. Thanks for the safe travel wishes!

  18. says

    For me, one of the best things I did when we returned home was volunteer to teach English as a Second Language at our local Literacy Center. In my class were people from Iraq, Burma, Africa, and all over Latin America (and I’m in little ol’ Durham, North Carolina, not some big city). I really enjoyed interacting with these people and learning about their cultures and their lives, both here in the U.S. and in their home countries. I can’t wait for classes to start up again this fall. It’s honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I think people often think about going abroad to teach English, but there are also so many places to do it right here at home.

  19. says

    @Theresa: Very good point about teaching abroad vs. teaching at home. Fantastic suggestion to either volunteer or teach English as a second language at home — or both. My dad does it and he’s always regaling us with stories of the people he meets (and instructs) and how they are from all these places that we’ve traveled to. It’s rewarding, it gives back, and it makes for a very small world.

  20. Kathy says

    Maybe curiosity killed the cat, but it also kills complacency and intolerance…and perhaps–Alzheimer’s? You’re right…it’s all about attitude, whether at home or abroad.

    Kathy–living in Chennai, India

  21. says

    @Kathy: Thanks for your comment. Nice to see you here. I like the sentiment, particularly the killing of complacency and most especially intolerance (one thing I find myself increasingly unable to tolerate these days).

    Chennai — great city. (By the way, Audrey’s family lived there for two years when she was a baby.)

    Speaking of tolerance, one of my fondest memories of Chennai was of a Muslim cab driver who said while driving us to the train station, “I am Muslim. But we are all brothers here, Christian, Hindus, Muslims.” A genuine moment that reminded me of this photo:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/3934598361/

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