Guest Blog: Cross Cultural Luggage – What Color is Yours?

by Susanne Mueller
Have you ever wondered when you are waiting in the arrival hall of an airport where the luggage on the carrousel originates from? You look at the diverse people around you and are thinking of which arriving luggage belongs to whom? Transnationals, business executives, entrepreneurs, consultants, leisure travelers, and families with kids are populating the arrival halls. These days most of the bags look more like global luggage: plenty of them are the same size, shape, and colors are black, brown, gray; on my mum’s clever observation she bought a bright red one –now it seems multiple people were following my mum’s advise and you see many more red colored bags. What color is your luggage? What has luggage in common with cross cultural issues? Luggage can shed some interesting light on a variety of cross cultural stories beyond borders.

Let’s go back in time and delve into nostalgia: in the early days, people were traveling on boats and vessels and were carrying, maybe also sending heavy trunks with all their personal belongings to venture to a new world. The pieces of luggage looked more like entire, immense houses itself. In those days, people were traveling for an extended amount of time and many travels, discoveries and explorations took much longer than today’s supersonic Concorde flights from Europe to America – which unfortunately, in my opinion, do not exist any longer. All nostalgic memories we have of the old times when traveling was something special and very much out of the ordinary!

So if we go back to the arrival hall at the airport and still wonder where the luggage comes from do we now look at things differently though a novel, cleaner, unusual, and curious lens? I used to work at the Lost Luggage office for Swissair lines in Switzerland: in retrospect I think that was my best ever –non academic however – cross cultural training which I obtained without even thinking or enjoying it fully: After a while I became an expert in deciphering and telling where on this planet the pieces possibly would come from.

• Asians tend to have very elegant and high end, high tech pieces that would have wheels on all four corners. So they could wheel their luggage upside down as well as lift them up easy to pack them in the buses. They were apt to travel in groups in and out of many towns and countries in a short amount of time. So all had to be very functional yet elegant to fit their style.

• Middle Eastern luggage was usually big, vinyl and in dark moron, gray & black colors. Most of the pieces would have some dust of the desert on them. Their purpose of travel was mostly to visit family members and they brought with them many goods from foreign lands. These pieces intrigued me the most as they looked very interesting, mystical and I am sure they could tell a thousand stories from their long travels: Arabian nights without wheels.

• European luggage seemed to be more practical and typically smaller. Europeans can travel light and very down to earth. So a backpack could be as adequate as well as a sports bag or a suitcase. Many different colors and patterns with or without a logo were available.

• The American luggage represented in those days the ‘American Tourister’, all looked brand new from a major department store. Usually, there were many in the same shape and pattern. Obviously, women on their trips needed a full bag of shoes to accommodate all possibilities of their travels and potential opportunities. Also Americans were known to travel through Europe in a whirlwind.

Some observation that I have made was that today in the global environment we see less and less cross cultural luggage –the globalization has taken over: there are fewer nuances. We all can agree with Thomas Friedman’s quote: “The World is flat” (2005). “We merge into a global travel civilization where all looks the same.”

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Susanne Mueller, MA, New York, http://www.susannemueller.biz/, a transition coach and consultant is an expert on cross cultural awareness. She was working for Swissair lines in Switzerland and New York. She resides in New York, USA.