Perspective is incredibly important when you enter a new culture, especially if you plan to stay there awhile.
It's also important while traveling in general and in the interactions you have. I've met people throughout the course of this past year in many different circumstances whose attitudes made me take a step back and say 'wha?' These were fellow travelers, locals, volunteers I was working with, and more. Sometimes these conversations or things I overhear baffle me.
One thing that I'm particularly sensitive to here in Eastern Europe is the constant exclamations of foreigners about how cheap everything is. Sure, that's an incredible benefit to traveling to this area, but if I stop to think a moment about why exactly things are so cheap, it's so that the average local can afford it. It is so people can survive and feed their families. I imagine they aren't to keen to hear us always rave about low prices, but that is the truth. I don't think there is anything wrong with sharing your joy at finding a 30 cent whiskey here in Bulgaria, but do it amongst company you know, and keep in mind the reason behind it all.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have our current host Margaret, who is Scottish but has lived in Bulgaria for a few years now. Her take on things - if she gets charged a bit more than locals here, it's alright with her. She comes from a place where her currency has higher value, so she knows she gets more for her money, and that local people benefit when she pays an extra few Lev for firewood. I'm not advocating that we all go and encourage scams or overcharges, but when our money already goes so far, is it right to argue over a dollar (or a pound, her her case)? I have yet to get to Southeast Asia, but I have heard travelers rave about how they haggled the prices for goods down even lower than they should have and how proud they are. I would hesitate to accept that mindset.
There are other things we need to keep in perspective. Our egos, for example.
In one instance, I was at a new friend's place here in Eastern Europe with a diverse group of people from around the world. Two fellow American travelers who I had come to know as fairly decent and upstanding people began to stroke their own egos, saying how proud they were to be 'authentic' travelers instead of just tourists. I will grant you this - not everyone has the time or desire to travel long-term. In that regards, they are unique. It is not for everyone, despite what some tend to think, and I don't push my travel style on others because that is exactly what it is - my style, and no one else's.
I spoke up and said, "Shouldn't we encourage travel in whatever form it takes, knowing that at least they are getting out there and experiencing things?" I received blank looks from around the room. "Maybe, but there is definitely a difference," one replied, and they continued to hash out those various differences amongst themselves through the course of the following half hour.
This strikes me as petty (among other things).
Yes, I feel incredibly fortunate to be living out my dream, which happens to be long-term travel. Anytime I hear this traveler/tourist conversation it is always with the former talking negatively about the latter, which happens to show me that like many silly debates in life, it is purely narcissistic in nature.
Enough about that particular peeve; it's been discussed plenty across the blogosphere.
I've also come across travelers who complain constantly about where they are, and how much better things are at home. As I wander this earth, I'm coming to find I appreciate certain things about home in the United States as well. (Vaccuums with enough power to clean a carpet, dryers for my laundry, great infrastructure, etc.) What makes perspective important in this case is what you take away from these experiences. I think there is nothing wrong with experiencing something different and deciding it isn't what you want or enjoy. If you do have everything you want at home, however, I would question why travel would interest you to begin with. Everywhere has something to teach us. There is no 'greatest country' in the world, and each place has its pros and cons.
Romania, for instance, taught me quite a bit about hospitality. To say 'you're welcome' in Romanian literally means 'with pleasure.' I felt like everyone in that culture gave to me without thinking about it and happily, as if giving was instinctual instead of obligatory. I think people at home could learn from that. On the other end of the coin, I probably would never live in Romania, as the government is very corrupt and life there is complicated and very difficult for expats.
Keeping things in perspective while you travel, though it sounds cliche, is important.
If you travel solely to reinforce what you already think you know or to have something to boast about, you're missing out on one of the key things travel has to teach us in the first place - new things! Humility. Gratitude.
We have so much to learn. Stepping out our front door is only the beginning.