The Farther One Travels, The Less One Knows

As I took this a random guy walking past me shouted: "The Empire State!"

Surely I smirk as I write this, surely I’m rather pleased with myself to show off how much I’ve traveled around our little planet in my pathetically short life—10 countries in Europe and Asia, but please hold your applause until after this post is finished—so I was not a little offended when I first heard this song by the Beatles, from the “Past Masters” album—a song I’d never heard before, which came as a bit of a surprise since I spent several years of my juventude listening to the Beatles with my gray cd-playing walkman almost without ever taking the headphones off, even as I slept—though I am said to say that that divine walkman has long since vanished into the netherworld where all things go when we no longer have any use for them.

This particularly exquisite tune seems to tell us to stay home and stay in our rooms rather than travel abroad and explore the brave new world lain out for us like a second Cleopatra unrolled from a second Egyptian carpet—and what lunacy is that! what silliness! everyone knows that only ignorant savages never leave their homes! 촌놈 시골에! my hometown in Maine seethes with them like BB gun-toting cockroaches!

And I was parodied by little children as I took picture after picture on Sand Beach near my family's home on Mount Desert Island, Maine.

Regardless, the lyrics are taken from the Tao Te Ching (and oh if only it had been Lao Tsu and not Confucius whose philosophy was suffocating and driving to insanity the jagged green little half-peninsula of South Korea!, that Punchinello!, that demi-paradise!)—

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

Arrive without traveling
See all without looking
Do all without doing

Who but a hick could believe such rubbish as this! And we all know how well-versed those Tea Partiers are in ancient Chinese philosophy; practically every third sentence out of Sarah Palin’s voluptuously inviting lips is a quote from Mencius!

A door in Tbilisi.

So I focused on the sounds more than the meanings, but the subtle, devilish ideas penetrated my soul, and I began to think about them a bit more. I can remember resting from the broiling Cambodian heat at one of the many spectacular temples outside of Angkor Wat, and watching with disdain a pack of Korean ajumma tourists fanning themselves and wearing the same stupid head visors as always and continuously babbling the same word to themselves—Hanguk! Hanguk! Hanguk! Korea! Korea! Korea!

(when I later complained about them to my mom, she told me that they could have been talking about how there is absolutely nothing in Korea that can hold even the most infinitesimal candle up to the mind-rocking ecstasy of Angkor Wat; this is indeed possible, but still)

Some friendly nomads in Southeastern Turkey.

A different group of Korean tourists was making a racket at one of the temples that Coppola may have shot for the end sequence of Apocalypse Now, photographing themselves with the nubile nymphet Apsaras and generally acting just as idiotic as they always do at home; and yet another trio of youths was riding an elephant up to the top of the only mountain in the area, uttering perhaps the most common phrase in Korea—Hana! Dool! Set! One! Two! Three!—photographing themselves on their enslaved mount. I am a hypocrite but I obviously despise people who ceaselessly photograph themselves.

(Needless to say, after they got off at the top, this same mount charged back down the path rather angrily, roaring and growling and blasting its trumpet loud enough to knock down the trees!—and, naturally, scaring the shit out of me, as I was in its way and hiking up the mountain on foot. Getting the shit scared out of you in such a primeval way is definitely a unique experience and I highly recommend it, only, make sure to bring a change of pants, socks, and underwear)

The Korean Apartmentopolis

The same people were to be found in Turkey, photographing themselves jumping up and down on the top of Mount Nemrut—the camera was quite fancy and mounted on a tripod, as the sun was setting (they planned ahead so they could post the pictures on Cyworld and make their friends back home sad and envious, according to my fiance). A different group preoccupied itself at Ephesus by walking around without even looking at the ruins and telling idiotic jokes in Korean that I actually partly understood—“Mom, somethingsomething please; Mom, something different please.” And I bash the Koreans here but it should be noted that Ephesus in particular and Angkor Wat as well was crawling with hordes of idiotic tourists from all over the world; one essentially ensures that one’s mind will be degraded when one joins a tour group and does not travel alone or with very small groups of friends.

The point of all these mildly racist anecdotes is to illustrate how we take our worlds with us wherever we go. Those Koreans, surrounded by themselves, took Korea with them wherever they went, and acted just as if they were on any number of the stupid theme park excursions available to them within the borders of their great nation, their precious stone set within the silver sea. I only saw them in passing and I always find myself despising Korean tourists with a peculiarly inappropriate intensity when I travel outside of my new home, but I suspect their minds were not enlightened in the slightest by their ventures abroad. All of the young ones were still sitting around in their hagwons, cracking jokes and talking over their teachers; the ajummas were still selling baskets of tofu out on the disgusting sidewalks of Busan, sheltered from the viciousness of the sun by the hastily-erected cardboard walls of refrigerator boxes.

In beautiful Duchess County, upstate New York.

(as for that last detail, I do not exaggerate, that unfortunate halmoni can be found hawking her fruits and jalapenos in the afternoons outside one of the tech stores on the main stretch of Sasang between the subway station and the Nakdong river; I pass her every day on the way home from work)

The song is partly about this. What’s inside is the same as what’s outside. Obviously, very obviously, we cannot expect to learn about the world, and to be inspired to joy by the myriad wonders of the world, if we are not ready and open-minded. For an American to go abroad and seek out pizza and hamburgers is absolutely the height of stupidity and ignorance; Koreans apparently travel with ramen noodles and bags of kimchi safely tucked away in their luggage so they don’t have to sully their tongues with inferior foreign cuisines—and the barbarism of this somewhat notorious cultural practice is so outrageous I want to throw open my window and scream until my throat bleeds. Lauren Hill asks “How you gonna win if you ain’t right within? How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?”—and no one else could say it better.

Maine's savage beauty.

I still disagree with my favorite Beatle, Mr. George Harrison, as well as the Tao Te Ching, but I see where they’re coming from. I spent a little under two months of 2010 living the nomad life, darting from place to place once every day or two, often sleeping in a different bed every night, and I have to say that such a life beats the sedentary civilized one by far, and that mankind as a whole is quite insane to have given up the freedom of movement for the stagnation of being sedentary, so I cannot surrender myself to sitting in my little apartment for the rest of my days and dwelling on the vast oceanic labyrinths surging beneath my consciousness—but the idea itself is welcome to join the senate of notions forever jockeying for attention within the little bony congress that is my skull.

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6 thoughts on “The Farther One Travels, The Less One Knows

  1. Jennifer says:

    I think you have still missed the meaning of that Beatles song/Tao Te Ching lyric, in that it can’t be entirely grasped intellectually. I would have missed the point too when I was younger/before I took up meditation. I don’t think I was prepared for the Tao de Ching to whop me over the head until I was 27. But now I really get it, though I won’t be so presumptuous to say I completely get it yet, nor did the Beatles likely completely get it.

    I’m not sure if it’s something that can be put into words easily and if I do you may still just only think about it on an intellectual level and hence not grasp it. But I’ll try. Basically it’s saying that people who make their journeys primarily on an exterior and physical plane are often apt to miss the much richer journeys, revelations and confrontations that can take place in one’s inner life. You can certainly learn much about different cultures and our physical world by traveling, especially if you are a curious person such as yourself. I think a person like you learns a vast deal more from traveling than the average person. And sometimes these journeys can enlighten us spiritually too, really, I think that anything has the possibility of doing so.

    However, these very journeys on the physical plane can sometimes distract from going within and confronting one’s true self. Sometimes being stuck in one room for one’s whole life can be the most revelatory experience, as I think is shown in the poetry of Emily Dickinson (though you may disagree with its quality). In that time your whole personality can unravel to reveal spirit; undistracted by a change in outer scenery you can begin to see the reality beneath reality. Or you could watch TV all the time or gossip constantly and still fail to see anything meaningful.

    I guess, for me, neither travel nor staying home are a guarantor of anybody becoming wiser or more spiritually awakened. Both experiences may lead to wisdom or folly. But often travel and restlessness and learning about other cultures and becoming “worldly” and “wise” are the chosen distractions of people with the most potential to burn like fire from within if they’d settle down to it.

    If you want another example of how travel can just lead to the same-old same-old I give you the legions of ex-pats who hang around in bars bragging about the exploits they’ve had in foreign countries while never really having understood themselves or the places they’ve been any better. They use travel solely to prop up their ego so that they can see themselves as an “experienced world traveler.” What a pity. What a waste. Unfortunately, the ego is a very tricksy thing and I can sense it in the things I do and say and in some of the things you’re saying here. Not Freud’s ego, mind you, but the ego as understood in the spiritual sense – the collection of ideas and concepts about personality that cause us to see ourselves as better than/different from others and separate ourselves from the glowing, swirling universe. Again. None of this is understood by me primarily intellectually, so when I try to put it into words it often sounds ridiculous.

    But there is ego in the very setting up of the Korean people as “bad travelers” here. You are different; you are separate. You have defined yourself.

    Hell, I’m probably defining myself right now as better because I’m so spiritual and shit, but I’ll try to stop that. Tricksy, tricksy ego.

    I do feel, however, that I’ve seen the greater worlds within; I’ve glimpsed them. And it’s made travel something that (while still pleasant) no longer feels like the end-all be-all. I could have a beautiful experience in any place in the world you put me barring an all-out war zone at present, I believe. I’ve largely made my peace with industrialized, relatively tree-less urban Korea and am ready to put in another year. Meditation and going within has made this possible. The larger worlds underneath are sometimes all that keeps me going because our exterior world has become so fucked.

    Would love to talk this all over in person. But my friend, you need to do more of the inviting and not only at the last minute!

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    Every point is valid, but you’re still wrong :p

  3. Gid says:

    I understand what you’ve written is mostly about how silly it is not to be curious about one’s environment and new experiences, but you tend to assume that everyone who doesn’t want the same things you do is an idiot. You’re correct, it is silly to spend time in a foreign country taking pictures of yourself doing things you always did and eating food you already like, but people who do that are just trying to relax and bond. They tend to feel like trying to “go native” would take more stress back to their jobs and families than they came with.

    What I’m getting out of this is that you look so hard at abstracts that you tend to dismiss everything right in front of you as automatically stupid just because it isn’t spectacular.

    Just reading how you describe “hicks” in Maine is a perfect example of that (even if we ignore the assertion they all tote BB guns). Yes, some of them are ignorant. I’ve met plenty of them who actually have lived up to the stereotype and earned the name. My favorite recent example happened a few months ago when I was at a party at a sort of house on stilts in Penobscot. I was with my cousins, one lives in that area and the other was visiting from Manhattan. When one of the two brothers who owned the property used the n-word, my cousin from Manhattan called him inbred and asked how he thought he was any better than black people he’d never met. When my cousin asked him how he felt about Sicilians, we discovered that while he wasn’t sure where Sicily was, he thought it was in the vicinity of Jamaica. The dispute escalated from there, and the rest isn’t really relevant to what I’m trying to say. It is important that not everyone in the room (or rather a wooden platform on stilts enclosed with siding straight from the hardware store) agreed with his attitude. Some of the people he evidently had grown up with and evidently still hung out with have radically different opinions. Just like he refused to acknowledge that he didn’t know everything about black people because of the six or so he’d actually met, I have to give some of the people there credit that they didn’t live up to my expectations for girls who wear hunting camouflage to parties. There are plenty of people in Maine and everywhere else who don’t really get around, but many of them are still intelligent. That they worked instead of going to college doesn’t make them stupid. Most of them are good at things and know a great deal about aspects of life that you won’t learn just by from Borges and sightseeing.

    I’m not trying to trivialize what you do or claim that a bunch of fishermen and construction workers have it all figured out. I’m just pointing out the inherent contradiction present when you try to instruct everyone to leave their comfort zones when you haven’t demonstrated that you’re trying to function in their worlds and examine what it would be like to have their opportunities instead of your own.

    Plenty of people I’ve met who know they aren’t as bright as their self-image would have them wish have used the fact that they attend college, have a degree or studied abroad to compensate for being only marginally intelligent. In my experience at work these people (they usually LOVE the soft sciences) are worse than those who don’t think of themselves as intellectual or who are obviously not very smart.

    Like with almost every time I respond to something you wrote, I think your arguments would be a lot more coherent if you got your head right. Comparing new experiences to Cleopatra on a rug is distracting, while sarcasm about how Ms. Palin would never study eastern philosophy is just smug. Her supporters already know she doesn’t. That’s part of why they like her. Bashing her on those grounds goes nowhere towards explaining why anyone should listen to you or the politicians you agree with.

    Hope everything is going well.

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  5. hiddenconnections says:

    Sorry for the very late reply!

    Okay, a fair point. When some people travel they just want to relax. I just hate the squandered opportunity you have, really whenever you step out the door, of exploring new worlds and growing outside of yourself. I’m in the woefully depressing habit now of judging everyone around me rather severely based on their appearances, which is really unfair; I tend to assume that everyone around me here has very little in the way of an inner life, which is something you cannot be sure of unless you know the other person intimately—and these assumptions I make limit my ability to see outside of myself and experience the lives of the other people who crowd and surround me here wherever I go.

    I’m also in the habit of writing vitriol—I get caught up in the spirit of the whole thing, and it’s also effective sometimes in getting a reaction out of the reader, but because “I doubt even my doubts” I don’t think it’s difficult to convince me that every single point I make is simplistic, contradictory, unnecessary, or whatever. Sometimes the goal is just attention. The people who write that everyone on Earth should just be friends do not get the same kind of notice as those who despise virtually everyone, or pretend to.

    And so I suppose when I write that I wish people could see outside of themselves, what I really mean is that I wish I could see out of myself completely, and inhabit the fascinating lives of even the most ignorant people. A single moment would be pretty educational, I’m sure.

  6. hiddenconnections says:

    Oh, and Gideon, my wedding is on January 23rd, and you’re invited.

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