From Tourist to Local: A Journey into the Marvelously Mundane

I’ve had the opportunity to visit some pretty incredible places: Kathmandu, Manilla, Hong Kong, Athens.

I love being a tourist.

Meeting new people. Experiencing new things. Trying all kinds of food. But eventually you have to leave and the adventure is over, you’re back to the mundane of everyday life in your home.

I was watching an episode of Parks and Recreation the other day and one of the characters said something so deep I actually paused the show while I thought about it.

Describing another character, Ron Swanson, the resident curmudgeon commented, “He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives. Takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish.”

It struck me as strangely profound.

As usual, I weighed the idea against my own life. And as I sat there thinking about it, I realized something. I don’t want to be a tourist in people’s lives. I want to be a local.

It is so much more comfortable to be a tourist. Smile at the camera next to people and wave, showing how happy you all are and chatting about surface things. Collecting stories to show your friends later on down the road. Then hopping on a plane and going to the next exotic location with new people to meet and new experiences.

Being a local is much messier.

Locals know the dirt. They know all about each other’s hang-ups and failings. Locals know what goes on behind the scenes. They stick around during the good and the bad. They are there for the celebrations but also for the funerals and mourning. Locals do life together. Sometimes they don’t have photos together. But they have memories. The shared kind. The type of memory associated with not just the big life events but the small ones too. The everyday memories that make up an entire life. Locals are the ones you call on to help you move, cry on the phone with when you find out you’re ill, laugh behind your computer with when your boss turns red trying to figure out who glued his coffee mug to his desk.

The trouble is, you can live in the same physical location your whole life and never be a local.

So here are three ways to keep from being a tourist in other people’s lives.

1) Be Present

Having the entire internet at our disposal whenever we want it on our phones can be a blessing and a curse. We are constantly able to entertain ourselves or find the answer to a question. But it can also be a major distraction from real life. My sister and I were at an amusement park yesterday, and we watched as a mom and dad sat on a ride with their kids in between them. It was a slow ride with a lot of visual stimulation, explicitly designed for little children. You know the kind, lots of dolls dressed in costumes from around the globe singing about how ultimately, the planet is really tiny… The kids were excitedly pointing at the bright lights and moving objects around them, but their parents were both looking down at the dull light coming from their screens. The ride lasted 4 minutes, and the entire time neither of the adults looked up. I peeked over their shoulders to see the mom scrolling through Instagram, liking pictures of her friends and their children as the dad browsed an online magazine. They were technically present with their kids, enjoying the theme park together, but they weren’t really there. I’m guilty of this myself. Checking my email in the car while my family chats around me. I’m still engaged in the conversation, I know to say, “Yes” or “No” or “That’s funny!” during little pauses. But I know I’m missing out. I can’t ever get that time back. So I’m trying to be better. Keeping my phone in the glove box of my car so I can focus on the people with me instead of the people on the other side of the screen. I’m doing my best to be truly present and not just there.

2) Embrace the Boring

Tourism is exciting and out of the ordinary of everyday life. Being a local will subject you to some pretty mundane action. The same old same old type of stuff. The trick is to embrace the boring. Life is full of the common, and if we let it, we can miss out on the magic of those ordinary, everyday things. So instead of becoming numb to the routine, we should actively enjoy it. Those car rides without looking at my phone are a part of embracing the boring for me. Our culture has become accustomed to instant gratification and constant entertainment. The whole patience and sitting still things are tough for me to grasp. But more and more, I am realizing that life goes by too fast. Those times of sitting still and enjoying the people around you are precious, and none of us are promised tomorrow. Embrace those moments.

3) Choose Selflessness

What is a universal trait for all tourists? It’s all about them. They are the ones on vacation, so they expect to be catered to and treated as the guest. Tourists tend to be selfish. And that’s fine. Usually, they are only on vacation for a short time. But it’s different for locals. Locals work together to accomplish community goals. They understand the importance of society over individualistic needs. No one would ever tell their problems or secrets to a tourist just passing through. But they would to a trusted friend. I want to be that friend. Someone who knows the person’s history, someone who doesn’t need to offer advice or suggestions on how to fix it, just someone with a shoulder to cry on and a few tissues to give when they need them. Someone who realizes it’s not about me. It’s about them.

This week, I’m challenging myself to be a local.

I’m going to put my phone away, embrace the stillness, and do my best to remember the world doesn’t revolve around me.

I think I’m really going to enjoy not being a tourist any longer.

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