A few friends and I decided to propose a “challenge” for our group with hopes to accomplish several different goals. We pitched our idea of “airplane mode,” a 12 day period where we stay off social media, messaging, facetime, mapping capabilities, etc. We would be leaving on a train to go to Penang, Malaysia, staying there for 12 days, a perfect opportunity to notice what happens when we begin a journey in a new environment without technology. How does this lack of technology change the way we interact with this city? How does this lack of technology change the way we interact with each other? With various different motives and one of the more prominent ones being more group cohesion and inclusion, we mustered up our courage and pitched the idea to the group.
Initially, we framed it in an all or nothing lens (maybe our first mistake). We romanticized this idea of “back in the day” when people used to travel without access to technology and wrote letters or made commitments with notes and meeting spots. We idealized waiting a long time to communicate with loved ones from back home and having fewer distractions in our daily routines. We thought that without technology and fewer ties to home, we would be forced to rely on one another more which would allow us to open up to each other and gain support through different avenues. We were obsessed with this idea of authenticity and getting an authentic experience. Regardless, we had some backlash for various different and valid reasons. It was another eye-opening experience, and while some aspects of this hurt, it was important for me (and my ego) to navigate.
After compromising (challenging ourselves to practice our communication skills!) and allowing people to pledge to their own challenge or not, whether that be giving up Facebook for 12 days, or Instagram for the duration of our stay in Penang, we began airplane mode on the train from Kuala Lumpur to Georgetown, Penang.
I personally pledged to give up “everything,” deciding not to use any form of social media, maps, music, and communication unless it was work-related or an emergency. I wanted to fully challenge myself, as the reason I went on this program was to challenge myself in any way that I could. Through my 12 days, I learned more than I thought I would and I surprised myself in various ways. I tried to keep an airplane mode specific log of each day but eventually, I spent less time logging and more time exploring the city with the group (see logs below).
My experience in Georgetown, Penang was amazing. This city is made of street art and beautiful murals and now made of amazing memories filled with “competitive basketball,” banana leaf meals, and tiles that were fun and challenging to draw. I spent much more time out and about, and I played basketball with people in my group and with locals who were playing on the courts already. We watched movies as a group, laughed and discussed the silliness within the directors’ minds, and cried together leaning on one another for support.
Who knows if I loved this city because I loved this city or if I loved this city because I was more present without technology. I saw so many little nooks and crannies that I loved… would I have seen these details if I was looking on my phone from time to time? Or are there just so many great details in Georgetown that are hard to miss? But, I felt closer to many people in this group because I was unable to resort to finding comfort and advice from my friends from home. I noticed that I used my technology as a way to escape my discomforts, whether that was feeling upset about a situation or interaction, insecure that I was alone, or feeling not as welcome in the group during a particular moment. I could use my phone as a way to talk to my friends from home instead or scroll on my phone and feel less lonely and honestly fill time and space. But through these 12 days, I realized that there is no time and space to “fill” while traveling and when I have time to be on my phone, I really just have time to be out exploring, writing postcards, and studying. And, I realized without my phone, I journaled much more. Because I did not spend mornings and nights scrolling on my phone, catching up on what is happening on social media, I spent this time writing in my journal reflecting on the day. Even during the day, when I had a few spare moments or I was early to class, I used this time to write down my thoughts or even what I had for breakfast. I realized this habit was a healthy habit, a habit I want to continue after the 12 days. And, when I am 40 or 50 years old, I am going to look back and appreciate the time I spent writing the daily details down whether silly or sad. I wonder if I would have had these opportunities, watching movies, playing basketball, meeting new people, and journaling, if I had my phone calling my name? Would I have been at a cafe using wifi to talk to friends, missing these opportunities? I think so.
Our generation has such a reliance on technology and I don’t know if it is bad or good. In many ways, it is so helpful and has made our lives so easy. We are able to learn about the world easier and communicate from further away much more efficiently. But, I worry about what happens when we are face to face. How much of that time are we spending on our phones instead of with each other? How much time do we waste when we are with friends and family? How much of the world are we missing when we are staring at our screens? It is ironic to be traveling the world yet wasting this opportunity on the “world wide web” when the REAL world is right in front of us. I feel that we are missing out on a lot and it seems like many people who are older than me and lived much of their lives without technology are nostalgic of the “good old days” especially in regards to traveling.
There are a lot of questions that came up during this time and I am glad that I can reflect and think about them. I realized that I wish I did not have my phone during this trip because I really do think it changes your experience in such a positive way. You are forced to be much more present in the country you are in. Why study abroad if you are going to spend so much time on a device that you could be using at home? While it is good to find a medium, it is hard for some people (me) to get a healthy balance. But, then again, who am I to say anything about the best way people should live their lives. For me, I needed to completely get rid of technology in order to find this happy medium.
I hear from many people that technology while studying abroad is a contentious topic: to bring your phone or to not bring your phone. There is a debate whether students are actually getting as much out of studying abroad as people used to get when there was less access to wifi.
Through my experience, I think I would urge people, including myself, to try not to be on their phones as much as possible while traveling. Perhaps keeping your phone off during the day or doing other small similar practices can help curb your usage. I am still trying to find a way to have my phone with me (so that I can contact my host family or for emergencies), but not use it throughout the day. It’s really hard. But what a privilege it is to have all of this technology and access to wifi almost everywhere we go!
One of my goals before this study abroad trip (as listed on my FEA main page), was to get lost and find my way back without technology or taxis. This goal has officially been achieved and I will continue to find my way fulfilling the rest of my goals with and without technology.
Day 1: This is the first time on the trip that I didn’t listen to music on the travel day. I took a nap, talked to my neighbor, and stared out the window instead. I listened to the other conversations going on on the train, feeling like I was present with people even though I was not engaging with them. Their voices are all so familiar at this point, and I even feel comforted by the voices of the people who I am not close with. While it was white noise, it was comforting noise.
Day 2: Today, I woke up “naturally” to the sounds of my current roommates getting up. I didn’t use an alarm, but only for the purpose of sleeping in. I noticed the person who was sleeping next to me, with cords coming out under their pillow. Normally, I probably wouldn’t notice this. Feeling a little behind on school work, I left to go to a cafe to get work done. Many people invited me to dinner, and it felt like the first time there were this many IRL invites. I had to decline so that I could focus on catching up, especially when I know that I work much better alone at a cafe than in a group. I felt a little FOMO. Every time I finished a section of my academic work, I wanted to pick up my phone. In the middle of the sentences I was writing for my essay, I had to urge to read and write emails. I’m too reliant on my phone.
Day 3: I go to sleep and wake up to the people around me staring at their LED phone screens. I wonder how much time I have spent in bed just looking at my phone, rather than starting my day.
I see an email from a family I worked for, and I am dying to read it and feel close to them. I read the subject and the short first sentence that offers a glimpse of what the e-mail contains. I wish I didn’t have to use my email for work-related things so that I didn’t get tempted. And, as cliche as this sounds, I notice a couple sitting at a table at a cafe both on their phones not conversing with one another. I, too, have done this too many times.
Day 4: I had to turn the wifi on my phone to send photos for work-related purposes. This meant a flood of texts loaded onto my phone at once. As I cleared each of the notifications, not looking at what they said, I couldn’t help but read one of the text messages. It was from one of my best friends who said her parents were splitting. I was stuck in the middle, wanting to stay off of my phone but wanting to support her. I decided to e-mail her instead.
In this instance, I realized that our generation is available to comfort and support each other at any given moment because we can communicate with each other so easily. Back in the day, if something hard was happening with a friend, a letter might take a month to receive, and the letter to respond might take a month to send. Now, we can support each other from almost anywhere in the world. And if we are near each other, we can text one another to come over any time of the day. This is extremely helpful to cope with things and get advice.
One reason many people did not want to participate in the “airplane mode” was to be able to be supportive and there for their partners and friends.
Slept in, not using an alarm. Decided to just turn corners and find a cafe along the way to write postcards; on the way, we found a cute spice shop and got t-shirts. We wouldn’t have found this place if we had searched for a cafe via google maps and taken the efficient route.