Labels are problematic. If I’ve learned anything about the types of people on the road after traveling through these different countries for nearly 6 months now – it’s that we’re all the same. But yes, a little bit different, too. Same same, but different, as they say in Southeast Asia. Sure, we’re categorized by all these differences and labels we have – the colour of our skin, hair styles, language, nationality, sexual orientation. But this isn’t what I’m referring to; it goes so much deeper than this.
I think back to my time in Vientiane, Laos. The rich capital of an otherwise poor country. Walking along the boardwalk I remember seeing a row of maybe 40 teenagers, all hanging out by their fancy motorbikes, flirting and teasing one another. The boys ran after the girls, the girls slapped them playfully. Replace the motorbikes with cars in the suburbs of Canada and it’s really the exact same. They’re teenagers.
Then there’s the young shopkeeper in Hanoi, Vietnam. She worked at a propaganda poster store for tourists and was studying at the same time. She loved her city and told me about her favourite coffee shops that she likes to visit in her free time. When I told her I was looking for things to do that weren’t so stereotypically 'touristy', she laughed and told me to sit outside a restaurant and have some iced tea and people-watch from the sidewalk. Funny, I remember back in Toronto referring a tourist from China to one of my own favourite coffee shops.
I’m in Cambodia now and the gay men are more or less the same as back home. Sitting at a quiet bar on a Sunday evening, my companion and I are greeted by the five local employees. They all come to sit and talk with us one by one. We ask them about being gay in Cambodia. One says it’s not so bad, his family doesn’t ask questions but they don’t really mind. Another says he keeps it mostly quiet except when he’s working at the bar or with gay friends. One of the guys says he’s looking for true love and a companion for life. Another says he’s just looking for threesomes. One says his boyfriend has cheated on him; another is cruising for guys on his phone.
The Internet has a big role in all of this, too. It connects the younger generations with one another so much that in the small villages of rural Bali you can see the kids singing the same Rihanna songs that kids in North America sing.
But that doesn’t explain the striking similarities between the older generations, too. There's something deeply human in all of us, and that’s the thing I’m referring to. It’s the elderly Thai woman who sits next to me at the market and smiles and asks where I’m from. She orders some strange chicken-meat soup and shops for weird products I don’t understand, but she’s still the same as people back home. Her smile melts my heart and it’s real and honest. In that moment, when I look past the food she eats and the things she buys, she’s just a friendly woman out to shop and have lunch.
You see all this when you practice eye-gazing too. After you’ve genuinely locked eyes with someone, you feel yourself looking at something so much deeper than physical appearance. You get into that soul territory that gets right past the surface level deception.
Racism shouldn’t exist. You can be annoyed by other cultures, and you can refuse to empathize with some of their traditions that may seem cruel to your morals. You can even carry your own engrained prejudice around with you (though you should actively work to shed it when you become aware of it), but there’s no need to discriminate and be racist. Because we’re ultimately the exact same people looking for the same things in life.
Who knew that it would take me coming across the world and immersing myself in 'Asian' culture to realize how few differences there really are? We ought to be defined not by our appearance and labels, but by our hearts and intent.
Cambodians have suffered from a past genocide so dark that it made me feel nauseous to my stomach as I walked through the Killing Fields and witnessed thousands of human skulls stacked on display. Humanity can be atrocious, but it can be redeeming too. We need to see the dark on display in museums in order to appreciate the light and make sure it never gets so dark again. The people here have a history of bloodshed that most Canadians know nothing about. But at our core, we’re all still people trying to get by and find the things we love in life.
We need to stop labelling everything in our minds and start seeing people as they really are- just people. Straight/gay, mixed/white, female/trans, and every other single thing we like to label- who cares if you struggle to put a label on it? I promise you- not knowing will not hurt you, it’ll provide a chance to learn about someone. You don’t implicitly need to know someone’s gender, someone’s backstory, or someone’s identity by first glance. You learn these things about a person by interacting with them. It’s when we stop pre-judging and start listening that we find out who people really are, and who we are. Labels are distracting and a weak shortcut to satisfy our egos.
I’m guilty of labelling and pre-judging too. It takes a conscious effort to avoid. But I’m ready to shake things up and reevaluate how I see it all. Open yourself up to the world with me. It’s way more exciting when you don’t know what, or who is out there. ◼
Where does your prejudice come from? Who do you wrongly label?