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Fitting In Where You Fit In Is Hard

Yet again, travel is the easy way out.

Brooklyn bar
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BUSHWICK, Brooklyn- They look just like me. They have shaggy beards. I have a shaggy beard. They have shaved heads. I have a shaved head. They are covered in tattoos. I am covered in tattoos. They wear tight black jeans and leather boots. I wear tight black jeans and leather boots.

So what’s the deal?

I listen to what they talk about and it’s incomprehensible to me: streaming shows and insider happenings and local bands and happy words about ephemeral nothings. I wait patiently for someone to provide me with a doorway to jump through into a conversation — an idea, a philosophy, a discussion about some place in the world, a treatise on life — but it doesn’t happen.

So I just sit there, drinking my Labatt Blue. It was July 17th — 716 Day, the area code of Western New York, a sort of dumb contrived holiday to celebrate the things we like there: Labatt Blue beer, chicken wings, beef on weck, garbage plates, Webers mustard, the Bills, folding tables.

Labatt beer

I’m not really surprised at my rather lame state at this bar. Drinking establishments are one of my best travel writing tools when abroad: I make friends, put out the word about what I’m gathering content about and open the floodgate for an inflow of info and prospective contacts. It works and it’s fun.

I wasn’t getting anywhere in my work at the hipster bar and I wasn’t even having fun. There are reasons why traveling seemed like the only logical way forward when I was teenager.

Socially speaking, travel is easy. When you walk into a room full of people who don’t look like you, who speak a different language, who have different world views, who like different foods, and worship different Gods conversation is simple: just open your mouth and questions come out. To put it simply, you stand out, people look at you, you observe things that you don’t understand. The more out of place I am the more comfortable I feel.

Where I blend in is where I do my worst socially. When you’re culturally equalized — same paged — you need to bring something more the table than being something different from far away. Suddenly, you can’t asked the basic questions of life because you’re expected to already know the answers to.

Drop me into the middle of some remote group of people in some far flung land and I make friends, learn, share, and have a great time.

Outsiders have it easy. You can’t be ostracized from a group that you were never a part of. This enables you to make your own rules — if someone doesn’t like it, you just walk away from them. You are the Other, firmly outside the group, irrelevant beyond a passing intrigue, you don’t really matter. Being an outsider is a social wild card — people open up to you, they tell you things, they show you around, and they know that nothing that they tell you is going to have any impact on the social circles that they cultivate and value. It’s a glorious social wild card that is easy to become overly dependent on.

Sedentary friends are far more difficult to win. the strategy is different in these situations — rather than focusing on the differences and learning about ways of life that are different than my own I need to focus on the similarities.

Wade Shepard

F’ck. Who has anything in common with me? I spent 20 years traveling to nearly 100 countries. I’ve never really had a home. I look like a hipster but write and make documentaries for straight-laced mainstream media. Nothing about me fits the standard categorizations — and people who don’t fit into a proscribed criteria are uncomfortable for groups to process, to rank and file.

What can you ask people about when you’re supposed to know everything already?

When I meet people I litter my introductory exchanges with conventional handholds — potentially interesting things about me designed to provoke a follow-up question which could drive the acquaintanceship deeper. I mention being an author, I say that I’ve been traveling for 20 years, refer to the place that I just came from, I drop that I’ve been to 90 countries, that I make documentaries, some of the publications that I write for. I don’t brag, I just present people with some material with which to carry on a conversation — this is routine politeness, a way of giving a little of yourself when connecting with someone. But the things that I present which produce conversation everywhere else in the world often doesn’t work here. This is a culture that has lost its art of conversation.

Being some kind of inconspicuous wallpaper-person is the worst thing for a traveler. The worst thing in life is to be ignored. The worst thing in travel is to blend in with the crowd. Whoever said being a fly on the wall is a good thing for a traveler to aspire to must have been one bored son of a bitch.

Filed under: Culture and Society, Drink Drank Drunk, New York City

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

11 comments… add one

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  • Trevor August 6, 2019, 9:29 am

    Seems that even though the guys all look like you, you are deffo in the wrong type of bar

    Hope uve found an apartment.

    Been quite involved on the weebly forum. Its been fun. Been helping a fellow blogger with h tags.;))

    Respite from pounding the streets as a mail man for 57 hrs a week. Thank God i am now in a position to quit any time i choose. Lol
    (Switched my email provider too)

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    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2019, 11:46 am

      That’s excellent to hear! Quit that job and get out there, man!

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  • Julie August 10, 2019, 11:42 am

    I just spent almost 2 months in Seattle. While you and I look very different, I had the same experience. I laugh about it but its sad that the best conversations I had were with homeless folks. They at least had a feeling of realness. They were open to talking with some depth and had something to say. The place turned vapid. That’s why I left. (But I think it really did get worse.)

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  • Jack August 10, 2019, 3:51 pm

    Wade! Where you in my head when you wrote this? I can so much relate to this. It makes me more comfortable to be out of the US than in it and it’s for the same reasons you mention.

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    • Wade Shepard August 12, 2019, 7:58 am

      Right on!

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  • Ed Teja August 11, 2019, 1:40 pm

    Amen to that experience and epiphany. I’ve never fit in where I am supposed to (Army brat, first school in Japan, grade school in Berlin, constant traveler (in Paul Bowles’s sense of the term) and not conversant with “my own” culture. It’s a barrier to re-entry that takes ages to overcome, and probably isn’t worth the effort.

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    • Wade Shepard August 12, 2019, 7:57 am

      Hello Ed, Very well put: “and probably isn’t worth the effort.” That realization is probably a part of the reluctance to really even try. Why bother? Just go somewhere else.

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  • Anson Stanley Cardoza August 14, 2019, 3:15 am

    Hi Wade,
    It’s true the title of your article says everything. Never the less, we try to talk with others the way we are but does not go with that flow. Very well said Wade.

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    • Wade Shepard August 15, 2019, 12:35 pm

      Thank you! Very much appreciated.

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  • Richard Kimble August 19, 2019, 5:19 am

    Can definitely relate and I think exactly the same thing when I’m in a Western country.
    Been overseas working for the last 19 years,,
    been to 98 countries and I often think it will be hard to readjust and find some similarities when I go back home.
    I somehow feel more at home in the world’s backwoods

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    • Wade Shepard August 19, 2019, 2:57 pm

      Definitely. Some people are just made to not fit in. The more outside the cultural norm I am the more relaxed I feel. Kind of counterintuitive but there are many out there like us … but they’re not usually to be found sitting on barstools in hipster bars.

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