One of the first real memories I have of my childhood (“real,” versus the ones that are planted after hearing X story umpteen times or seeing photos of that first trip to Disney World when you were 2 years old) is that of a map. I’m pretty sure it was a map of the United States, where each state was a different color.
I can remember my first reaction was to wonder why each of the states were shaped the way they were: Nevada came to a sharp point at its southern border; those square-shaped states nearby seemed unusual, especially when compared to an Oklahoma or Utah, which had a smokestack.
At some point a few years later, I learned that each state had unique characteristics, and I set out to learn the state capitals and nicknames, all in an age when the Internet, then it its absolute infancy, was confined to some underground bunker/research lab in a desert.
[Interesting sidenote: I may have been one of the very first consumers to own a computer when, in 1982, my mom bought a Timex Sinclair 1000 home computer. You saved your work on audio cassettes, and the computer itself was limited to BASIC commands, but at 11, I had written a program that would allow me to check out books from a home library, if in fact I had actually owned a home library.]
Ever since I learned that New York was the “Empire State,” but my home state of Georgia was the “Empire State of the South,” I have been captivated by the concept of traveling to different places and learning about different cultures. As a child, I would study maps and atlases intently, and scour through encyclopedia entries about different states or nations. [When the new yellow pages would come each year, I’d haul them off to my bedroom to study the local maps, as well as the “Community Facts” and “Local History” sections.]
The notion of actually leaving this country didn’t really hit me until I was in my 20s when I prepared for my first trip abroad — to visit friends in Germany and spend a long weekend in Amsterdam. I made a point of doing everything I could to fit in, because I wanted to get a taste of the cultures first-hand, not as a tourist, but as a local.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m going off on a business trip to the Dominican Republic, with Oscar, a Dominican who gave me a real taste of what that nation is all about. Other trips eventually came to include Montreal, Paris, Mexico, Cambodia and Thailand, Barbados and two cruises to opposite ends of the Caribbean. And in just about every case, I ended up adding a small bit of each respective country to the person that I am today.
As I get older, I find that I must start balancing my desire to see and possibly change the world (in some small way) with my responsibilities at home — with work, with my partner, and with all of the other responsibilities that come with being an adult. As much as I want to visit Bhutan, for example, I can’t just pick up and go later this year; for all of the appeal that living in Southeast Asia has to me, it really isn’t even worth the time to think about the “What ifs” of moving to Bangkok, Singapore or anywhere else.
Still, there’s the longing that comes from the lifelong desire to truly be a citizen of the world, versus an American, a Washingtonian, a guy in his 30s, or any other label that my present life would put on me.