When I taught English for a year on a little island off the coast of South Korea, there was one word I would hear people around me saying most often: 외국인 oegug-in (pronounced way-goog-een). This means “foreigner”. With my light hair and eyes, I definitely stood out in a crowd of Koreans. Having that kind of attention can be very challenging for introverts like me.
Not to mention that the word “foreigner” can sometimes have negative connotations. I never felt that way, however. Being a oegug-in was a positive experience for me. I quite liked being a “foreigner”. In fact, I love being a foreigner everywhere I travel. I enjoy exploring new places and being the odd one out among the locals. I think part of this is actually due to my introverted nature. Let me explain…
Introverts tend to be observers. We need time to take things in before engaging or offering opinions. We like getting the lay of the land from a distance, at least at first. Being a foreigner automatically gives one that distance. You are not expected to know. You are expected to observe. It becomes more acceptable or conventional behavior.
Excuse to Be Awkward
As with a lot of introverts, I am much more eloquent with the written word than the spoken word. It takes me longer to size things up and decide what to do or what to say. This often comes off as awkwardness and can be frustrating for those around me.
When I travel, the language and cultural barrier (be it great or small) provides a buffer. It’s expected that I may need more time to make myself understood in a foreign country, whatever language I am attempting to communicate in. If I don’t immediately respond to a social cue or understand a custom, I’m a foreigner so it’s ok that I don’t know. It feels less awkward to be awkward, if you know what I mean ?
Alone in a Crowd
Being in a group of people can be especially draining on introverts. We don’t thrive on the energy of social interaction, as extroverts do. Just the opposite. Being in a crowd is exhausting for introverts and we need lots of alone time to build our energy back up.
As a traveler, one is among large groups of people for extended periods of time – at an attraction, on public transportation, on a tour, at a restaurant, or at a hostel/hotel. This sounds like it should be a nightmare for an introvert. But when I am the foreigner, the expectations are different and thus the experience is different.
For example, even though my native tongue of English is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet, it is not usually the official language of my destination. When most of those around me are speaking another language, I don’t feel the same level of energy drain being in a crowd. Maybe this is because I don’t understand everything being said around me. There is less pressure to be ”on”. I can tune out the hum of the world more easily, relax, and observe.
I still need time my myself to re-energize (which is why getting a private room is one of my top tips for traveling introverts!) but, at least in my experience, it doesn’t take as much alone time as when I’m at home. Even when I am out on the busy streets of a foreign country all day, I often feel like I am by myself. I am alone in a crowd. It allows me to experience more with less of a drain. Of course, this is only true when I’m traveling by myself… Maybe that’s why 90+% of my trips are solo ones!
For introverts who would love to travel more but think it will be too much, I hope I’ve provided some insights and incentives to give it a try. Traveling is always an eye-opening experience but traveling as an introvert can really give you a new perspective.
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