The Cure to Cancer-like Nationalism? Travel More.


“Do NOT eat the chicken.” I heard this advice frequently throughout the year. “Pork is much better for you.” At first, I scoffed and thought – in not so many words – “what do you know?” But after a while, once my beliefs we no longer threatened, I began questioning my knowledge. And with that questioning, for better or for worse, I began realizing my own nationalistic tendencies.

We moved to Bucharest, Romania from Forest Park, IL almost a year ago brimming with fresh ideas and hope. In that time, not only did we watch the States fall apart from a distance, but we also lived in a place where we saw how rapidly nationalism spreads like Stage IV cancer on steroids. I’m a marketing professor, and with my husband, toddler son and crazy dog in tow, we moved to Bucharest last August because I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Moving to a developing country, we knew we would face some challenges, but did not expect to learn as much as we did. Nor did I realize how much perspective I would gain on the nationalistic tendencies sweeping the world.

When you travel, you leave all that is familiar. Consumers like familiar. Familiar is easier to navigate when buying something at the store. Familiarity requires less mental energy during the time of purchase and we are less likely to regret our purchase once we leave the store. We mentally lean on what we believe and those beliefs guide our purchases. At first we bought all of the novel things we saw, but after a while, when the novelty wore off, we formed new habits based on new beliefs. Much like food purchases, we found the same transition regarding sociopolitical situations. First, you compare your beliefs to what is familiar. Next, you learn to explore the unfamiliar.

While it might appear that the US is spinning out of control, I assure you, it is not. At least not in comparison with what’s going on in Hungary, Poland and Romania. Or, for that matter, Venezuela, Belarus and Cambodia. Or heck, even Italy and Great Britain. And yes, what’s happening in other countries does actually matter—even more so than ever. First, it helps us realize that things can always get worse. But most importantly, we need stable allies.

During our year in Bucharest, we had three Prime Ministers. The ruling party, known as the PSD (Democratic Socialist Party), is slowly dismantling the Romanian Justice Department brick by brick. Liviu Dragnea, the PSD’s leader, was recently found guilty of election fraud and abuse of office, and  sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Parliament passed several laws last week that altered the penal code basically making bribery and corruption legal in an effort to keep Dragnea out of jail.

As awful as this seems, when I began reporting the news back to my friends in the States, I often heard, “we’re headed in the same direction,” or, “here, too.”

But no. Like, really… no. Not even close.

If you want to discover your nationalistic tendencies, travel more. Awareness is the first step. You can’t fix what you’re not aware of. You’ll have the opportunity to spot your nationalism every time you find yourself thinking that you know better or more than others. You might find yourself trying to speak the language and then think to yourself, “this would be easier if YOU spoke English.” That, right there… it’s nationalism. Just like walking through an unfamiliar grocery store picking out unfamiliar brands, you start to learn a new way of being. You learn to question your beliefs. And you start caring more about what’s going on in other countries. In the final step, you learn why it matters.

Is pork healthier than chicken? I honestly don’t know. That’s just what I was always told. Before I moved to Bucharest I had no reason to question it. But now, I do.

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