AAA Magazines

To get the most out of your travels, embrace your vulnerability

The summer between my junior and senior years in college, I won an internship with a French company in Paris. The program included housing, and I was placed with a French family, none of whom spoke English. On the seventh evening of my stay, I wanted to show my appreciation to my French “mother” for another home-cooked feast by saying the meal had been so delicious that I was completely full.

I knew the word for “full” was plein, so when the dessert plates had been cleared, I grandly pushed back from the table, patted my stomach, and announced, “Je suis plein!

All the jaws at the table dropped.

Donald, un moment,” said Didier, my 25-year-old French “brother,” raising a finger. “In street slang,” he continued in French, “Je suis pleine can mean ‘I’m going to have a baby.’ It’s not a polite expression.”

Oh, mon Dieu! I wanted to dissolve into the 19th-century carpet. But what would that achieve, I thought. I had come to France to learn French, and making mistakes was part of the process. I’d better get used to it.

I faced the family. “What I was trying to say,” I said in faltering French, “is that because the food was so delicious, I ate so much that my stomach became full.”

Frowns turned to smiles and a collective “Ah!” filled the air.

Bravo!” said Didier, clapping his hands.

Over the ensuing days, as I bumbled and stumbled but ultimately communicated in French, people opened up to me. Didier introduced me to his friends, and suddenly I was being invited to cafés and soirees—all in French. My world expanded more than I could have dreamed.

I was slowly realizing that by making myself vulnerable—by being willing to make a fool of myself—I was also making some deep human connections.

This lesson deepened when I later moved to Tokyo on a 2-year teaching fellowship. I fell in love with a wonderful woman, Kuniko, who came from a remote corner of a little-visited island. Whenever I visited Kuniko’s family, word spread that “the foreigner” was in town, and curious eyes would follow us wherever we went. My fifth visit coincided with the village’s annual summer festival. The climax was a parade that snaked through the streets; anyone could join. You just had to learn the traditional dance.

I had never been a deft dancer, but I decided that if I really wanted to be part of the town, I needed to swallow my pride and join in. Kuniko’s family arranged to get me a kimono—the largest available was still about a foot too short—and traditional wooden clog shoes. Family friends patiently taught me the dance steps.

On the grand day, I clip-clopped to the end of the line of dancers and made a glorious fool of myself, tripping and dipping and clapping my way through the streets. All the non-dancing townspeople lined the parade route and, as they spotted me, they burst into laughter and applause. After that day, “the dancing foreigner” was the talk of the village, and smiles, bows, and waves greeted Kuniko and me wherever we went, as they still do when we visit.

If I’d had any doubts about this lesson, they were put to rest in Cambodia. I visited a hamlet in the rural north to see some ruins. There were no hotels or guesthouses, so I’d arranged a homestay. When the taxi dropped me off, I found myself in a thatch-roofed stilt hut in a jungle compound with no internet connection. My world became that of a beaming couple with an infant son, with whom I had no common language.

At first, I wondered how I would ever survive. What was I going to do for 4 long, lonely days? I felt so alone. But then I decided to surrender to the situation and embrace my own vulnerability. What could I lose? And what might I gain?

Through gestures, smiles, and drawings, I began to communicate with my host family. I gathered my courage and went for a walk, watching children play marbles and kick around a soccer ball, and families cook and eat under thatched awnings.

On the second day, I dropped my defenses and asked the kids if I could kick the ball too; for the next hour we played soccer and pitched marbles. Later, I wandered to a neighbor’s patio and gestured that I’d love to see what they were cooking; within minutes, I was sitting with them, sharing their grilled chicken, eggplant, and green peppers.

On the third day, adults waved and kids high-fived me as I walked around the village, and that night I bounced my host family’s baby to sleep.

By the fourth day, I didn’t want to leave.

Now, whenever fear of embarrassment grips me, I remember that Cambodian hamlet and how I overcame my fears and embraced my vulnerability. And I recall that final day, when a neighbor’s son ran up to me and pressed a special gift into my hand: It was a marble, blue and green, as round and precious as the world we’d come to share.

Don George’s most recent story for AAA Explorer recounted his visit to the Galápagos Islands.

You may also like: 

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon