This afternoon I walked home from Tesco (the local grocery store). And as I was walking I kept trying to observe myself within the context of the crowd, to see how I did or did not fit in. Edinburgh’s populace is such a mix between visiting tourists (from both near and far) and locals, that any and everybody could belong to either category. It’s an interesting experience for me because the thing I so long to shed as quickly as possible when I get to a new place is that aura of being a tourist, of being a guest, of not really belonging. I suppose that’s ironic for a professional nomad. But I’m not nomadic because I don’t want to belong, it’s quite the opposite. I’m a wanderer because I want to belong, not just to one place, but the world. Some of my happiest moments while traveling have the moments when I feel that I have transcended from being a tourist to a native.
Four years ago, while I was living in Beijing for two months, I had such a moment. And it was beautiful and wonderful and I was so proud of getting to that place. But four years is a very long time and I don’t think I quite see eye to eye with my former self. You see, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that was not a mindset I was particularly happy with.
There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist or a visitor. In fact, it’s something quite brave and wonderful. There’s nothing wrong with standing out, with openly declaring “Yes, I’m not from this place. But I’m here because I want to be here. Because I want to see and learn and experience everything I can. I am a tourist and I’m here because I chose to be.” When you think about it, the act of being a tourist is a huge compliment; someone chose to spend their hard earned free time (and money) coming to a place totally unfamiliar to them. But there is such a stigmatization to being a tourist; it’s so often portrayed as an annoyance that people are forced to bear up with. There’s a huge emphasis on the superiority of being a native and an almost crass depiction of the inferiority of being a tourist. But the more I travel, the more I see the value and beauty of both occupations, and the more blurred the line between the two becomes.
This was a theme I saw reflected in my visit to Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery. There are only five such portrait galleries in the world and the Scottish one is stunningly curated. The gallery is so much more than a collection of historical portraits. The museum has been designed and organized to tell the story of Scotland through these portraitures. And this is not a story depicted solely through the lavish portraits of the aristocracy; there are portraits of rebels and poets alike, there are etchings of old and new maps of Scotland, photographs of important Scottish icons, and visual art that defies traditional categorization. The reason I found this presentation of portraiture in such a variety of forms so brilliant was that it both defied my expectations and assumptions but also served to reaffirm my incredibly high regard for this country. The museum is not designed to present one aspect or one side of Scotland’s history, it has been composed in such a way as to represent that many faces of Scotland, in all their difference and their glory. No one is excluded; there are turncoats and kings, sportsman and scientists, Scots clad in tartans and saris.
Yes, saris. What I found to be one of the most beautiful and stunning displays in the museum was a collection of family photographs focusing on the Pakistani population of Scotland. What I admired so much about the exhibit, beside the color and vibrancy of the photographs, were their depictions as being just another Scottish family, another thread interwoven into the fabric of Scotland. Once looked down upon as tourists, as visitors, as people who did not belong, this exhibit demonstrated the reality of our dual roles as natives and foreigners. For, the truth is, we all came from somewhere else. It doesn’t matter if it’s down the block or on the other side of the globe but we’ve all experienced that sensation of having once belonged to a place. And, hand in hand with that, we have all experienced that sense of not belonging. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? It’s two sides of the same coin. The families in those photographs weren’t any less Pakistani because they were Scottish, and they weren’t any less Scottish because they were Pakistani. A tourist may be new to a place but they still made an active choice to be there and they can respect and admire a nation as much as a local.
I am a wanderer but, to quote one of my favorite authors of all time, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Because I wander does not mean I do not belong. It just means I belong where ever I go.
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