I love to travel, and I’ve had many opportunities to travel internationally, often with one or more companions who are also from the United States. It’s comforting, that shared experience of exploring a new-to-us culture, sampling the same new foods, navigating unfamiliar streets together, and gazing with wonder at the same breath-taking new landscapes. Plus there’s a sense of safety when traveling with others, especially for wanderers like me, who can get hopelessly lost even when given a map, a compass, and a GPS.
Therefore, when I planned my very first solo international trip just a few years ago, I was quite nervous. Not only would I be a woman traveling alone in Mexico for almost two weeks, but my knowledge of Spanish was minimal, even after three years of classes in middle school. Yet somehow, much to my surprise, I managed. After two weeks, I had visited the gorgeous Mayan ruins in Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza. I got lost exploring the streets and beaches of Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, and Puerto Morelos. I had swam in fresh underwater reservoirs, snorkled for the very first time, and saw a place where seawater swirled with fresh water, a rare natural phenomenon. Plus, I could order a simple meal entirely in Spanish!
These new experiences, while fun, were definitely challenging as well, requiring me to constantly act outside of my comfort zone. By the end of my trip to Mexico, I had discovered that I was stronger than I’d ever thought I could be. As a result of my travels, I felt like I had found a piece of myself that I never knew I had lost.
Such a journey of self-discovery lends itself easily to the typical coming-of-age narrative so popular in children’s and young adult fiction. It’s why I’m surprised there aren’t more realistic tourist-travel narratives in multicultural literature for younger readers. At the same time, the trope of the young explorer is extremely popular in fantasy, where magical lands offer more potential for exciting adventures than our non-magical world. If I had to choose between visiting the United Kingdom or OZ, just give me a tornado and a house or a hot air balloon and you can keep the Wicked Witch of the East’s silver slippers (they’re ruby red in the movie because the director wanted to show off Technicolor).
For this first topic of Stranger in a Strange Land, Renee and I discussed books where the American protagonist journeyed to other countries. All the books she listed were about ethnic American children traveling in search of their family’s cultural roots. In contrast, I was looking for stories of a white mainstream American child confronting a completely foreign culture, a child’s version of the Lawrence of Arabia story.
So we’re combining our interests. With each new weekly post, I’ll update the list below.
American Girls Educated Abroad