Seeing the World Through Foreign Eyes


 Here is the next section from my 2001 book, Hoover’s Vision, which is now available as The Art of Enterprise at  If you search my geography posts (click on Tuesday, above, use the search box or the tag cloud), you will see updated reading recommendations, in addition to those below.

We are all foreigners somewhere. Foreignness is a reciprocal quality. Maybe you’ve seen the message on a trucker’s rear-view mirror: “I can’t see you if you can’t see me.” Foreignness is the same way: if you are a foreigner to me, I am a foreigner to you. If your language is strange to me, then my language is strange to you.
This truth really came home to me while standing at the front desk of the Bengal Club in Calcutta. There on the wall were the names of the Presidents of the Club for every year since its founding in 1827. For the first 141 years, they were all British. Trying to make conversation with the Hindi desk clerk, I said, “Boy, look at all those old, dead Brits, with their funny names – ‘G.E.L. Milne Robertson’ and ‘The Honorable Justice Gilbert Henderson.’” But then I saw the switch after 1968 to the local names – “Aloke Mookherjea” and “B.N. Bhattacharjee” – and I looked at my own funny old German name that I was signing on the guest register. Embarrassed, I could only say, “I guess we all have funny names, don’t we?”
It’s a worthwhile experience to spend time looking at the world through the eyes of a foreigner. The most effective way to do this is to go abroad. When you travel, it is important to use of all the looking and seeing techniques covered earlier in this book. We tend to travel to sit by the beach, to see a famous museum or two, or to attend business meetings. But if that is all we do, we are not making the best use of our mileage. Exploratory travel means traveling with your eyes glued to the window, asking questions everywhere you go, noticing everything from local sports and music to architecture and billboards.
The greatest opportunities for our minds to absorb new ideas often come while we are far from home. For many of us, just the experience of being outside our normal environment is stimulating, creating a rush of new ideas and insights. To me, nothing is more exciting than my first arrival in a virgin city or a virgin country.

I have devoted a fair share of my time and energy trying to convince people to explore the world. Frequent, affordable air travel makes this possible to a greater degree than at any time in history. Travel can be greatly enhanced by studying history, geography, and culture in books, but there is ultimately no substitute for walking the streets, eating the food, meeting the people—for being there.

Whenever I meet a high school senior planning on college, I am tempted to suggest that they would learn more if they went to college for two or three years, then traveled the world for another year or two. Many Europeans, Australians, and some Americans do just that, although they usually finish their four years of college as well. This is one of the best investments a young person can make – if they really travel with an open mind, ready to absorb all that they see.
A key concept in exploratory travel is “making a place your own.” If you go to New York City and take the same tours, go to the same skyscraper observation decks and the same museums as everyone else, you’ll come home with “the standard New York” – the same city that everyone else sees. To really get your arms around a city like New York, you need to reach further, to create a New York City that is your own. Find the restaurant or diner that is not in all the tour books. Find the quiet neighborhood that has no tourists. Visit the bubbling ethnic caldron of Flushing in Queens or the nineteenth-century enclave of Brooklyn Heights. If you go to France, don’t limit yourself to Paris and the Riviera; see Lyon or Bordeaux. Every city has neighborhoods that are off the beaten path, every country has cities and regions that are unknown to most tourists. If you can approach a new city, a new state, or a new nation, and make it your own, you will gain a deeper understanding and usually retain more vivid, more personal memories.
Another important aspect of travel is coming home. When I go to another country, I try to notice everything – how the stoplights look, how the banks work, how the food tastes, how the playgrounds are different. But when I land back in my familiar United States, I always try at first to see my homeland in a new light, through foreign eyes. When I get home from Hong Kong and land in Texas, I ask myself, “If I had never known anything but Hong Kong, what would be the most striking thing about Texas?” How would it seem odd to me? How would it seem the same? When I first turn on the radio or TV I ask, “What would this sound like to Hong Kong ears?”



  1. I agree completely. It was (and still is amazing) how much you learn by traveling to a foreign country. I have worked throughout my career in Europe (and a little in Asia/Pac). Both of my children also studied in Europe. The populace could really care less about what we Americans think and it is an eye-opening experience to speak with these people and see how their opinions have been formed.

    As far as stoplights goes, people can learn a great deal about history and how to manage a population by studying the Ampelmännchen (Amplemann). It is still being used today.