by Nandi van Vliet
“I really liked living in my own little bubble” is a phrase most of us will have uttered at one point or another. We are all familiar with it and so far I’ve never met anyone that doesn’t enjoy the comfort of their own little bubble. This is where we feel safe, we know things work in it, we trust it, and we protect it because it protects us. Does that mean that life is like a bubble too? That depends on what you define as a bubble.
There is not one clear definition of what ‘living in a bubble’ means, but most share two similarities. Living in your own bubble shelters you from the outside world, and it limits you to be surrounded by people similar to you. At first, you might think “So, what’s the problem? Isn’t that convenient?” It is.
Growing up in a bubble leads you to believe that your way of doing things is the way to go. Think about people that have never left their state, town, or even village. Most of them are hardcore defenders of their ways and beliefs. They don’t know or have zero interest in the ways of others. As long as they stay within their bubble this is relatively harmless, but once they venture outside and are confronted with others’ ways and beliefs, this can lead to conflict. Especially when the other opposite party also views their ways and beliefs as the right way to go. It might be a generalization of course, but you get the point.
Most of us have grown up in a bubble in one way or another and many may have experienced little to no contact with bubbles significantly different from their own. I’ll refer to the bubbles we are familiar with as “basis bubbles”. When thinking about the bubbles of your life family, cultural, status, societal, religious, and economic bubbles might come to mind for example. This looks like quite a broad list at first, but when I looked at it for myself I noticed one key thing: in all these bubbles I see people who are like me. People that (to some extent) share my values, my point of view regarding what’s appropriate or not, and what one should achieve in life to be successful. It makes me comfortable, maybe a little too comfortable.
Because I don’t want to preach the old “life starts beyond the comfort zone” tale, I will reflect on my own experience and let you decide what to do with it. I grew up, as described above, in a variety of bubbles that were comfortable and filled with people similar to me. However, due to a series of events I began to feel like I didn’t fit the standard of some of my bubbles. As a result, I didn’t feel so welcome anymore in the bubbles I had called home my whole life. It left me feeling a little heartbroken but mostly feeling excluded and alone. After a while, these feelings made way for a feeling of determination. I was determined to find other bubbles; bubbles that I would feel welcome to. And I did.
The first big step for me was to step away from everything I knew. I wanted to experience something completely different from what I was accustomed to. During my second gap year after high school, I had time to go on my first trip alone. I decided to do something that I’d always wanted to do but had always been too scared to do on my own: backpacking. Not to go find myself as the stereotype prescribes but rather I wanted to find others.
I planned for an 8-month-long backpacking trip and, a few weeks later, I was ready to go. My first stop was Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve wanted to visit South Africa for as long as I can remember. My name is South African (I’m not) but it always drew my attention. When I was a kid, my parents gifted me a book about two little South African girls -one of whom was called Nandi- and I loved it. It made me curious. I landed on January 26th, 2020 and it felt a little strange. Strangely familiar perhaps. I quickly found out that those who speak Afrikaans can understand my Dutch and vice versa. Many streets and towns had Dutch names and many people didn’t even speak English to me. I was hoping to escape the familiar, not run into another familiar.
Days went by and I made friends in the hostel I was staying at. Really good friends even, but since they came from all over the world, they didn’t grow up the way I did. They didn’t fit my bubbles and I didn’t fit theirs. And you know what? We got along tremendously well. We got to know our different bubbles, mixed them where we could, and accepted them where we couldn’t. After about 6 weeks, we said goodbye as we all went our separate ways again. Some of them headed home, some to other countries and I traveled on to Thailand, ready to do it all again.
It didn’t last very long, unfortunately. Covid-19 took over the world at a rapid pace and I was forced to go back home after only 7 weeks of traveling. However, I still keep the memories of those six weeks in Cape Town as one of the happiest times of my life. For the first time ever, I fit in, even though my new friends and I were nothing alike.
It took me months to realize that it is not necessarily a resemblance that bonds people together. It’s often accepting differences that attract and excites, although it takes a bit more effort and determination. But, It gives you so much more in return: different perspectives, norms, values, cultures, and ways of life. It helped me realize that bubbles are not limitations, they are doorways to new beginnings.