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Beware the Fixed Notion When Traveling
by Bob Fisher

Traveling to India was a refresher course for me in what a colleague and fellow journalist on the trip referred to as “the fixed notion” — our tendency to apply our own frame of reference to a destination.

Even though I had read about India fairly extensively, I was surprised to find myself still somewhat the “innocent abroad” when I was fully immersed in medias res India-style. Like most first-timers to India — and as is to be expected — I experienced to some extent sensory overload in this nation of 1.3 billion people. But what really surprised me was not so much how I reacted to India but the degree to which I had come here with a preconceived notion about the country.

As travel journalists we strive of course to get the “authentic experience” and to maintain neutrality in our observations. By the way, I believe there is a qualitative difference between being “neutral” when reporting on a destination and being “objective.” We are human sentient beings and an important component of the stories we tell is the subjective, and especially the affective. Although correct factual information is critical to travel journalism, we also strive to communicate to our listeners and readers what “it was really like”; how we felt about it, what our senses told us about the destination. We are storytellers. But to do this in a totally neutral fashion one should, in principle, view a new destination through totally fresh eyes. However, this is easier said than done; it's not that simple leaving home at home.

We all come from somewhere and we are all products of our own cultures and cultural biases. In terms of visiting a new destination, unless we have never even heard of it and suddenly happen to find ourselves in it, we always arrive (despite our best intentions) with some kind of fixed notion about the place. And fixed notions tend to be generalized, often vague, and one-dimensional.

Nonetheless, one of the delights of traveling is both confirming and experiencing first-hand that what we have heard about a place is indeed true. At the same time we begin discovering the layers of experience in a destination — that there is far more to the place than our “general knowledge” has led us to believe. As a matter of fact, the general knowledge (which contributes to the fixed notion) can even be misleading. I knew I was going to a country of 1.3 billion people and that it would be, to some extent anyway, an overwhelming experience.

And it was, but not for the reasons I expected. What I had not anticipated was how quickly I would feel engaged by India in a very powerful way. As a matter of fact, India is now at the top of my list as one of the most welcoming, friendly, and captivating countries I have visited. And why shouldn't it be? Well, because my fixed notion of a country with this many people led me to expect otherwise; that I would feel “lost in the crowd” and apart. How could my North American mind process being in the midst of a population more than 40 times the size of my own not-so-small country? My cultural bias made me anticipate a kind of faceless society. But, happily, all that changed. From the moment I arrived, it was the individual not the masses that became my easy and delightful focal point.

My North American perception of time and order were also challenged. Time here at home now seems almost an obsession; time in India seemed more fluid, occasionally almost irrelevant. And although my North American brain did initially “see” disorder in Indian society, an awareness of a different kind of order gradually began to emerge. Now the challenge is to describe that order in words; it may be something you can only experience. Indeed as I walked the streets of Bombay (Mumbai) and attempted, as is my custom, to pre-write in my head the story I would tell, I had difficulty finding words from my Western lexicon that fit what I was seeing, hearing, and feeling in India. Of course I saw poverty and pollution and they were indeed issues, but these terms are as relative as beautiful, exotic, and intriguing. Relativity became a principal issue of the experience of India.

What was the lesson I learned yet once again? It is this: we all have a bias and our cultural biases travel with us in our mental luggage. Now, a bias is not so bad; actually it's quite normal. As I said, we all come from somewhere. There are of course negative biases (“Teenagers!”), and positive biases. (“All children have certain rights.”) And there are unintended biases that can be negative if they prevent you from really getting to know someone. (“Canadians are such nice people; polite, non-confrontational. A lot like their national symbol, the beaver. Industrious, hard-working, good swimmers, adept in the wild, have excellent dental hygiene, and are very cute.”)

So where do these fixed notions come from? From almost anywhere I suppose, and over a long period of time. Media messages of all kinds certainly play a big role, as does history, literature, mythology, politics (for sure) and our imaginations. And because news media often tend to subscribe to the school of “if it bleeds it leads,” and promotional travel materials are essentially manufactured, the former can create simplistic images of a destination while the latter can tend to create romanticized visions of a culture through imagery and other stylistic devices. It is clear why the fixed notion develops. And unfortunately, cultural stereotyping is often not far behind.

The good news, however, is that because we are of necessity becoming more media competent and better equipped to “read” information contextually, we can at least reduce the possibility of letting our own presumptive experience and cultural context interfere with our understanding of other cultures we explore.

It requires effort and 's not always easy, but isn't that why we like to travel?

See also our previous editorials