Out writer William Sinunu’s recent book, Life Could Be Sweeter: 101 Great Ideas From Around the World for Living a More Rewarding Life, delves into international concepts and traditions that Americans can use to enrich their lives, gleaned from his travels to over 100 countries, on everything from how Spaniards embrace their sexuality to how Tanzanians face death calmly through faith. We spoke with him about the great lessons learned from the art of traveling.
Where do you think modern American culture is compared to other cultures? We certainly work a lot more—even more than the Japanese. In Japan a study came out a couple years ago that caused an uproar. The report stated how a Japanese worker that spent 60 hours at work per week was twice as likely to have a heart attack than a worker doing a 40-hour week. It really affected the fast-paced Japanese society and actually caused people to decelerate their lives. We are now the most productive industrialized nation, but at what cost? If we look at our high rates of depression and anxiety and obesity and heart disease and other problems related to stress, I think we are on the verge of imploding. We are reaching a breaking point, and people are looking for other answers to the way we live.
Did you yourself have a turning point where you reevaluated your life? In 1994, I was supposed to be on a flight that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. That brush with death really caused me to stop and look at my life. For the first time, I realized I wasn’t living the life that I wanted. I feel fortunate that I had that opportunity—it was a huge wake-up call for me. And I feel like America is now primed for its own wake up call.
You stress that this book about other cultures’ ways of living is not anti-American. I try to be careful to not idealize other ways of living—the grass is greener syndrome. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel on how to approach life. However, some of us are opting to reinvent the American wheel, and all these wonderful lessons are just beyond our borders. But of course, we need to pick and choose different practices that are reasonable and applicable to our culture. Some practices out there are homophobic or misogynist—like removing the clitoris of girls in certain cultures—that we obviously don’t need to follow. But even in some antigay cultures in the Middle East, I learned great things. For example, in Lebanon, I admired a painting at a house I was visiting, and my hosts took it right off the wall and said please take it with you to remember Lebanon by. That taught me a lot about hospitality, the gift of giving, and honoring guests.
What lessons did you learn about being gay from other cultures? Societal status is based upon perception. I love the American Indian concept that reveres homosexuals for our unique ability to relate to both sexes. In that culture we are known as incredible counselors, peacemakers, and unifiers— which is so true. As I travel around the world and meet members of our community, I realize how gifted and talented we are. And many other cultures celebrate that more than ours.
What do gay and lesbian people teach the larger culture about travel? I think we as Americans have a lot of obstacles to overcome when we travel. In particular, we are geographically isolated. One of my goals is to get people to become more adventurous and step out of their shell and go to places where people don’t speak our language and where we don’t necessarily understand all the cultural differences going on in front of our eyes. The percentage of Americans with passports is languishing at about 20%, where Europeans are at least 50% likely to have passports. But I personally feel that the gay community is farther down the experience curve than most Americans because we travel more. We get up and go. I don’t think it’s as intimidating for gay and lesbian American travelers to go to a country where they are outsiders because we are often outsiders in our own country. We are more comfortable in that role—granted, not by choice. But we relish and enjoy our travels, which can be a great lesson for the larger culture to learn from us.