To Fit-in or To Turn-up-your-Nose? An Honest Tourist Dilemma

We often like to think of ourselves as adaptable and accepting of other places and other cultures. Sometimes, as much as none of us really want to admit it, that means sort of minimizing cultures down into intelligible symbols we understand rather than trying to understand them on their own terms. Sometimes, it means in the pursuit of avoiding harmful stereotypes, we avoid trying to think meaningfully about culture at all.

But sometimes, there are things we don’t like.

This was my experience with Boston.

Slandering Boston

I had heard mostly positive reviews of Boston before I went. There were glowing orations detailing Boston as a vibrant city filled with fantastic food and a thriving arts scene. Culture! History! Architecture! Etc. But there were also creeping indications of a less glamorous reputation: the driving is a nightmare, people are rude and impatient, etc. I was not particularly worried about these negatives. I had survived three years as a pedestrian/cyclist in New Jersey where it felt like people were actually out to kill me. How bad could it be?

O Sweet Summer Child, Briana of last week, how foolish you were.

Every time I left the house, I witnessed and experienced new levels of reckless disregard for life. On my first day, I saw pedestrians cross the street when an ambulance was coming. I saw people reversing blind into the street. I saw people taking turns so badly their wheels ended up on the sidewalk. I was nearly hit by a man who decided to run a red light. I saw people reversing in the middle of driving with no warning to other cars. I have spent plenty of time in New York, and I did not feel so endangered there as I did in Boston. When I asked my friend’s husband how he coped with driving in Boston at church, he said he had largely had to stop using his turn signals. If people knew he wanted to merge or turn, they would speed up to cut him off.

It wasn’t just the driving. It was the service in restaurants. It was walking down the street. It was getting onto public transit. So many people were, as far as I could tell, needlessly aggressive. I lost count of how many times people seemed to try to literally walk through me. In New York, for the most part, I felt people just wanted me to stay out of their way. They wanted to live their lives. In Boston, it felt like people were taking out their anger at their lives by going out of their way to be rude.

Now my host in Boston said that she had never witnessed such outrageous levels of rudeness as when I was there. That it wasn’t usually so bad, and that we had exceptionally bad luck in my time there. But the public transit was a mess, basic necessities were exorbitantly priced, and the architecture was uninspiring. The city of Boston gets a low rating from me.  

I should say I am glad I went to Boston and value the time I got to spend with people there. I loved visiting the public library, drinking tea at the harbor, visiting the museums, and walking around with my host. I did enjoy the food I ate, even if I grumbled at the cost. But it felt like there was an aggressive and angry Spirit in that city.

The fact of the matter is when we are tourists to a place there are going to be things we don’t like. There will be things we think are wrong. There will be things that rub us the wrong way.

Sometimes, these things will be problems with us and our inability to adapt to difference.

Sometimes, these things are genuine problems that a given place suffers from that we are detecting.

Sometimes, there things are petty problems that aren’t really that important.

Sometimes, as tourists, we bumble our way into real and serious social crises we contribute to in ways we can’t really understand.

 I’m not willing to adapt to a mentality that says it’s okay to meander across the street when an ambulance is coming. But maybe I, especially as a tourist who doesn’t have a schedule, can adapt to unreliable public transportation by planning more buffer time. I’m not willing to adapt to a mentality that says where I need to go is more important than risk to people in crosswalks. But maybe I can realize that service workers are being treated extremely poorly, so a rude restaurant worker probably has had it for the day and it’s me who should be extra respectful in response.

What’s the Bigger Picture?

There are limits to the analogy of our lives as tourists in this world. But I find myself asking God what I can learn from these experiences to think in a different way about the rest of my journey here on Earth. Two questions come to mind:

  1. What issues is God calling me to attend to, and which problems am I called to let go of?
  2. Of those issues that are worth attending to, what is God calling me to change about myself and what is God calling me to change/resist about the world?

My time here is ultimately very short, and there are always going to be dynamics I don’t understand and history I don’t know. I cannot be an expert in every facet of the place I live, and I cannot fully understand the experience of every community present there. I lived in Kailua, Hawaiʻi for the vast majority of my life and have always had an interest in history, yet there is still so much I don’t know about my hometown or my home state. Like a tourist, even in a place I know well I must proceed with caution and humility because ultimately I am limited. I need to listen to people who know different things that I might not and to the Spirit in the face of long-term problems. Of course this situation is even more serious in places where I am new or only living for an extra-short time, like Bryn Mawr, Paris, Princeton, Bratislava, Durham.

But, as when we are actually tourists, our time even in our hometowns is brief.

Not every problem is worth tackling. Not every problem that affects me is necessarily worth allocating resources to fix. Many issues that do affect me require change, but often that change that God is calling for is a change in me.

Still, sometimes the things that rub us the wrong way are indications that something really is wrong and needs to change about the place we are in. Sometimes, God is shouting with our spirits that we should not fit-in, not give in to the status quo, not adapt to the world’s way of thinking.






2 responses to “To Fit-in or To Turn-up-your-Nose? An Honest Tourist Dilemma”

  1. Grandpa Gene Avatar
    Grandpa Gene

    Give me the northwoods. You can have all the traffic.

    1. Briana Grenert Avatar

      I still remember when one SINGLE car drove by, and you and Grandma Jean said with such conviction “traffic!” 🙂

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