The MK/TCK Aversion to Being a Tourist

Attempting to be ‘good’ tourists on our last day in Amman

I love travel. I love planes. I love airports. I love that feeling of getting another stamp in my passport, of going into unchartered territory, of waking up on the other side of the world.

But I hate being a tourist. I hate associating with tourists. I despise the wide-eyed wonder and giggles of tourists when they see naked children beside the road. I groan at the “Well, that looks different! I wonder what it tastes like!” said loudly from the table across the room. I cringe when people stop in the middle of the road, lost and discombobulated.

For years the words “I’m not a tourist! I live here.” were on my lips when I went to bazaars in the Middle East. Even if I didn’t live in the place, I learned the phrase just so I could set myself apart.

I purposely try to book apartments off of websites or stay in guesthouses instead of hotels, just so I can give off the air that I know what I’m doing.

The problem is – sometimes I am a tourist. Often I don’t belong and I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know where to eat or shop. I don’t know local customs and can barely say hello. I don’t know any idioms and I don’t know how to get places.

I am a tourist. I am traveling or visiting a place for “pleasure.” That is the definition of being a tourist. I don’t live and work in the country I am visiting. I am not on a work trip. I am a tourist.

So why is it so hard to admit?

When you have lived in a place that others only visit,  that place, that city and country, become a part of your soul and your heartbeat. You see through the lenses of one who lives there. You know where the best places are for fruit and vegetables; you have a favorite restaurant; you have friends and develop community. And when you’ve done that in a couple of different countries then it seems impossible to just visit places for pure pleasure. There has to be more. You have to connect and communicate across the boundaries that being a tourist perpetuates. When you know what it is to communicate on a deeper level, it is so difficult to feel stuck in the role of tourist; the role of one who is present only for “pleasure.” Not to work, not to live, just for fun. Somehow it seems wrong.

But the reality is, it isn’t wrong. Being a tourist can help people learn and grow, help people to see the world through new eyes. If tourism is done right, then people gain knowledge of a new place and new people. They see the old through tours, museums, and ruins. They see the new through interacting with real people on streets and in stores. Being a tourist is not a bad thing. Being a tourist can help us learn about governments and problems in countries, can help us learn to be better people and better stewards.

While living and working in a country is definitely my favorite, either long or short term, there are sometimes when I have no choice but to admit that I’m a tourist. My question then becomes “How can I be a ‘good’ tourist?”

But that’s for another day. 

How about you? Are you a TCK or MK who hates being a tourist? Would love to hear your stories through the comments. 

9 thoughts on “The MK/TCK Aversion to Being a Tourist

  1. Thank you for this article. I think my reticence to being a tourist is due to several basic factors: 1) Tourist screams “You do not belong here!!” 2) Tourist generally means one sticks out more than a sore thumb, i.e. You Obviously don’t belong here, and 3) Tourist generally means “On the out-side- vulnerable – easily taken advantage of”. None of these things are desirable or enjoyable for me as a TCK; in fact these are things I have put a huge amount of sweat and tears into avoiding, therefore to be a tourist or not is a risk to be weighed before taking the plunge

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  2. I can so relate to this! Thanks so much for posting your helpful article.

    Growing up in Japan as a MK, I avoided the loud American tourists that passed me on the way to my international school. I wanted nothing to do with them and didn’t want my Japanese friends to equate me with them. When I went to the Philippines as a young adult I was determined to not be like my fellow teachers at the refugee camp—those who had grown up in the USA and had never traveled abroad before. I was so focused on “fitting in” that I was too embarrassed to admit it when I got sick. The other American teachers complained of intestinal issues and I was set on not having any “issues” due to the water and food. After all, I was different, I wasn’t a wimpy American; I’d traveled and grown up in Asia. Finally, a Filipino nurse I confided in told the doctor of our group that I was losing weight and unable to keep anything in me. Turns out I had an amoeba, which, was treated. It was not just a case of “new country dysentery” after all.

    We really don’t want to be tourists no matter where we go, even to the point of concealing our weaknesses. However over the years, I’ve been able to become more comfortable being a tourist — not loud, not pushy, not arrogant (not like “them”, of course). :-) And yet, able to learn and be humble enough to admit that I don’t know it all.

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  3. This is so worth exploring! Why do we resist the idea of being tourists so deeply? What is it? Does it come from our deep longings to belong? You’ve got me thinking! I’ve just come from Thailand where I was a tourist…and I resisted it too.

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  4. I can totally related. I hate being a tourist. I think, on our journey through life, as third culture kids, we are constantly striving and yearning to belong, to fit in. Being a tourist, only accentuates further, although I feel drawn to it, that there is yet another place I don’t belong. If I am around other American tourists, I also don’t feel a part of that group either. I am reminded acutely that I am in fact a third culture kid. I am drawn to cultures that are not my own, those aspects that remind me of the places I grew up, part of who I am, and yet my yearning to belong is intensified.

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    1. Exactly! One of the hardest trips I’ve gone on in recent years was a trip to India. While the trip has a purpose, I was with a group that had all been raised in the US and it was so hard for me.

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  5. I don’t mind being a tourist, per se, but I have an enormous aversion to watching people come be tourists in the place I live! I want to scream at them, “Your idea of Cambodia is NOT Cambodia! So stop thinking it is!” But perhaps I have a problem here ;)

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  6. This is totally true – I’ve always wanted to stay in a country and live there, not just visit the “sites”. Marilyn, as usual, you’ve brought me to see another side of things, and to reconsider my aversion to “tourism”. :)

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  7. I’m neither an MK or TCK, but a repat, and I totally relate. When you’ve lived overseas, you see how obnoxious tourists can be and don’t want to be identified with them! I think you’re right on the nose about being mindful of how to be a good tourist. Can’t wait to read that one. :)

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  8. The whole time I was reading this the song “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through . . .” was playing in my head. (And it feels like it is stuck there for a while. Thanks a lot.)

    Most of the time I’m on the road of life feeling a bit discombobulated and lost. The thing is I’ve got folks (like you) to help me find the way when that happens. People who reveal truth and shed light.

    So yeah, “Being a tourist can help people learn and grow, help people to see the world through new eyes.” — as a way of life.

    Thanks for hating to be a tourist. Gave me a lot to think about.

    Love you, cuz.

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