I have always been through international airports with an adult to herd me through hallways, onto jet walks, and past customs. I would watch the arrival and departure boards, awed by the fact that my parents could decipher these secret codes. They always knew where we should wait, what was going to happen next, and how to open the door to the plane bathroom. And while we were on trips, somehow they read maps, and found museums, and bought metro passes. I always wondered, how did they know? Who taught them the rules? The things to say, the places to go, the directions to follow to get us to where we needed to be. I was certain even up until I walked through security at the airport five weeks ago, that given the chance to do it on my own, I would mess it up. And of course, I did. I ended up at the wrong gate, I stood in the wrong line, I couldn’t find my ticket stub. But then I realized the part that I had been missing all those years: no one knows how to do it; everyone does it wrong.
My mom used to be militant about having us make our own phone calls. Doctors appointments, dentist appointments, babysitting jobs. Once we were old enough to have our own social agenda, we were old enough to organize it. I think that was the idea anyway. I remember sitting with the phone, yellow pages open in front of me, whining to my mother that I wouldn’t know what to say when someone picked up. I can’t remember what I was even calling about, but I was quite certain that I would sound like an idiot to whatever service person answered the phone. That is when my mother offered this advice, “You are a smart person, if you can’t figure it out, probably other people couldn’t either.” That was only the start of breaking down my assumption that everyone else has it figured out. Everyone else knows how to fill out tax forms, and fix their computer, and make doctors appointments, and navigate airports. It’s a hard assumption to let go of. Even walking into the job fair last quarter I marveled at how people knew the right words to say, and the right resume holder to carry, and the right moment to hand someone a business card.
Here’s the key to getting over the fear of messing everything up, of doing the wrong thing in a situation where everyone else is doing it right: travel to a country where you don’t speak the language. I have done everything wrong. I have wandered into places where I’m not supposed to be. I have tried to pay with the wrong bill. I have mangled so many phrases and missed so many cultural cues. It didn’t take long before I reached the sad realization that I didn’t know how to do any of it. But quite soon after that I had another realization: no one expects me to. Tourists are by their very nature kind of clueless, and the best part is, the more clueless you are, the more people will help you. I was worried about figuring out the airport on my own, but really, airports are designed to shepherd all manner of confused, fatigued, language-handicapped people. There are arrows, and pictures, and maps. In Hong Kong there are even uniformed workers with white gloves who will take your ticket, consult the board of confusion, and direct you to your gate. And when that gate happens to change at the last moment, the flight attendant will come gather you and your fellow travelers up like a class of four-year-olds and make you walk, holding a rope, to the new gate. Okay, so not the rope part.
I was standing in line in the Thai airport waiting to cross the final hurdle. The customs official would take the little card I had filled out on the plane, ask me if I was smuggling anything into the country, and wave me through so I could collect my luggage. At least that’s what I hoped would happen. As I practiced this scenario in my head, focused on the slow moving line ahead of me, a German woman grabbed at my little card. I whipped around, confused by words that I was fairly certain were not spoken in English. She pointed to her blank card, and then to the carefully penned markings on my card. Hmm, I noticed, the instructions are in English and Thai. That must be really helpful if you are German. I pointed to the “departure country” line and asked, “Deutschland?” She smiled and nodded. Unaware that I had just exhausted my knowledge of her native tongue, she began to rattle off sentences that meant nothing to me. When my face fell, she tried again more slowly. Eventually, and with much laughter, the card was filled out. There may have been a few errors, let’s call them educated guesses, but she did make it through customs in the end. And so did I. If she was okay, I thought, I’ll probably be okay too.
I must say, life gets a lot easier when you give yourself permission to do everything wrong.