What Do You “Really” Mean?

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What do people mean when they say they want to see or experience the real [insert country name here]? What do they mean when they write articles or post videos showing what a place is “really” like? Or the food or the people or the politics or the agriculture? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

How do you define the “real” hustle of a place? Pounding the pavement at the office all night on an upcoming deadline or wasting time until 1:30am trying to look busy until your boss leaves because work culture says it’s improper of you to leave before they do? Dealing drugs in the back alleys of Chinatown at sundown until you’ve made enough to pay off your $30,000 debt? Handing out flyers for your new startup, pitching donations for charity, or dancing in a Colonel Sanders costume trying to shuffle more people into the KFC in Times Square? What about those people running back and forth between the kitchen and tables they’re waiting on all night, hoping their customers see how hard they’re working and leave a good tip? Can’t forget to give “real” props to those dancing on Broadway or even those dancing on a bar somewhere downtown as one of three part-time jobs to pay their way through college!

What is a “real” holiday in New York City anyway? Making the rounds through the best 5-star restaurants in town, staying at The Plaza Hotel, seeing all the season’s best hits on Broadway, shopping on 5th avenue for the latest editions to your wardrobe hanging in a walk in closet that in itself is the size of a studio apartment? Does a “real” holiday mean staying at an AirBNB rental up in Harlem, going down to the neighborhood diner for breakfast every morning, and getting catcalled at 4am on your way home from a rowdy night out?

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Who is the “real” backbone of the culinary industry? Is it the Michelin star chef in Paris who, night after night, can be found bent over the kitchen counter putting the finishing touches on his most elegant dish? People put their name down on a 2-year waitlist and pay an arm and a limb to eat at his restaurant, but it’s worth it because he’s proven time and again to be the best in the business. What about the guy in Hong Kong who set up his own restaurant without a name and simply decided to put rusty tables and chairs he found at the dump in a dark alley off to the side of one of the night markets? He smokes cigarettes over the pots while he’s cooking, but the locals rave that it’s the best food in the country. Could it be the farmer in Nebraska whose skin has grown darker over the years from too much sun exposure working in the fields 10 hours a day, harvesting and caring for the foods that will eventually end up in supermarkets for mass consumption?

Which vendors are the “real deal”? Are the farmers markets in Bangkok that are set up so close to the sides of the train tracks that they have to move their products every time a train passes through more legit than the ones in downtown Calgary or Vancouver’s city center that cater to the health conscious moms and housewives? What about the retiree selling boiled peanuts on the side of the highway on the outskirts of Orlando versus the ones running up and down stairs all night at Comerica Park at the Detroit Tigers vs. Chicago White Sox baseball game?

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Have you tried “real” Japanese food from the small soba shop in the middle of nowhere in small town, rural Japan that serves its usual bunch of 10 regular customers then closes up shop for the day? How about from the most popular sushi restaurant in Shinjuku that can’t keep up with the daily crowd of salarymen on their lunch break? There’s a new organic cafe that opened up in Harajuku where young women in silk blouses, different colored or patterned skirts, and with hair that looks fresh from the salon come for lunch and catch up on the latest gossip. If you’re “really” among the chicest of the chic, this is THE place to go.

What does “real” love or a “real” marriage look like? Is it the Korean-American guy who once went to Russia on foreign exchange program, met a girl, and decided to bring her back to America after only 1 month of knowing each other just so she could get her green card and a chance at a better life? What about the girl in India who was sold by her parents at the daughter market to the first guy who made a generous offer? Is it the couple in South Africa with 2 kids who have been married for 14 years but the wife has been cheating for 7 and the husband knows but chooses to stay in the marriage for the kids?

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What is “real” punishment? Is it being publicly caned for being female, 18, and having sexual relations with a boy even though society constantly tells you that you’re too young? How about making an apology to the entire nation on live television for being in a romantic relationship despite the fact that your contract says you’re not allowed to be and thereby tainting your own reputation as well as your company’s? Is it being held in prison and deported for supposedly being anti-state by trying to steal the DPRK’s national flag? Is it being denied a job position you’re more than qualified for simply because you’re gay? Or is it just a timeout for a child that spilled juice all over the floor for the 3rd time yesterday?

What does it mean to have a “real” night out in Moscow? It’s hitting the nightclubs with your galpals and drinking yourself silly on vodka shots, right? Or maybe it’s dinner at a friend’s grandmother’s house eating homemade borscht, a recipe that has been in the family for 6 generations. What does it mean to have a “real” night in? Studying for exams at cram school until midnight? Curling up on the couch with a good book or watching Netflix? Potluck dinner and board games with your new neighbors perhaps? Cooking dinner for your kids who are home from school or your spouse who has just got back from a 12-hour day at the office?

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What is a child’s life “really” like? Do they prey on wealthy, white foreigners on the street and sing Christmas songs with their hands stretched upward in a gesture for money because that’s how they’ve been trained to contribute to the family? Do they go door-to-door asking you to buy your share of Girl Scout cookies so they can outsell their fellow scouts? Are they really content sitting on piles of trash and playing with sticks and mud because they don’t know any different?

By the way, how do kids “really” get to school where you live? Do they go to school by city bus or public school bus? Do they ride their bicycles or motor scooters or do they walk? Perhaps their parents drive them or maybe they drive themselves and a couple of friends? What about rollerblading? Segways? Horseback? Hoverboards? Limousine? Maybe they don’t even go to school at all?

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When I say to myself, “this is what it’s really like,” what I mean is this is what I experienced or this is the way I see it or this is what I know. It seems that when we say it to each other, it means that what I saw and experienced was much richer than what you saw and experienced therefore your perspective isn’t valid. We must learn to appreciate each other’s outlooks, ways of living, and experiences for what they are and understand that each individual is having a different experience on Earth but they’re equally real. It’s all real. From the Sydney Opera House to a tiny hut located in a fishing village on a small island in Indonesia. From great poverty to filthy fucking rich. From sights that are easy on the eyes to moments that are hard to digest. These exist in every corner of the planet.

In the words of Lady Gaga, in response to photographers who wanted to photograph the “real” her, “What are you looking for? I’m right here!” Enjoy the world we’re living in and all of its smooth surfaces, sharp edges, rich histories, and poor manners.

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