omeday, I want to travel the world” doesn’t seem as profound a statement now, in my young adulthood, as it once seemed in my youth. Dreaming about international travel used to mean I was adventurous. It meant my future was bigger than the life I was familiar with. It meant the person I aspired to be was unique — until I realized everyone else had the exact same dream. The idea of escape is a dream that was fixed in the fantasies every child once composed for their future selves. I failed to recognize that there really was nothing particularly novel in wanting to see every corner of the world or experience a reality that was radically unfamiliar to me. And now, as international travel becomes more accessible and more normalized in our generation, it’s reduced to no more than a collection of pins on a world map in the corner of every girl’s bedroom.
Now, everyone is traveling. We’ve become part of a global elite that is obsessed with leisurely international travel, cultural exploration and exploitation, and shameless self-promotion. There was a point in time last semester where it seemed like all of my social media feeds were clogged exclusively with travel pictures of the privileged cosmopolitan individuals I also call my peers. I became immune to the Instagram photos of those who had studied abroad in Western Europe, hopped around to a new destination every month to try yet another trendy coffee shop, and maybe stopped in Morocco on the way back to take a picture with the camels in the Sahara. I was numb to the images of people I knew who had gone to countries in South America or West Africa, took notes to recite in their medical school interviews, and snapped a picture with a brown child as proof of their compassion. I became accustomed to following the Snapchat stories of my friends who went on extravagant vacations through Southeast Asia, hopped from touristy temple to touristy shrine to picturesque garden and routinely documented the impressive food and cityscapes they encountered.
It especially stung to see people traveling to countries my own ancestors are from when they had no ethnic connection to those places themselves. They claimed to know a culture that is sewn into my genetic makeup while I sat and scrolled through my feed, wondering when I’d be able to physically connect with those heritages myself.
Those who come back from study abroad trips, service trips or vacations do so not only with stories and pictures of their experiences, but also with the illusion of having gained a broadened understanding of the world, an elevated cultural appreciation and a slight development in self-confidence and social maturity. What has always bothered me is the hint of smugness that comes with it. They often carry the subtle belief that they’ve seen more, done more, know more and are now somehow more worldly than those who are less traveled. They return to their undergraduate lives inspired by their international experience, yet unphased by the significance of the opportunity their privilege has granted them.
Those of us who rarely travel outside of the country are often told that we’re missing opportunities that can not be replicated. While that may not be entirely false, I think people overestimate the value in learning about the world simply by traveling it.
There is plenty to be gained by going abroad. The exhilaration that comes from entering a space that challenges the deep-rooted standards we’ve lived our lives by probably can’t be compared to any other experience. But it’s not necessary by any means. If I’ve learned anything about people who travel frequently, it’s that they don’t learn about the world by flying from urban center to urban center and visiting top tourist attractions accompanied primarily by people they culturally identify with.
People learn about the world from engaging with individuals of backgrounds and practices and perspectives that are different than their own. They gain the most from asking questions and diversifying their friendships. They spend their time in spaces they don’t know and talk to people they’re unfamiliar with. They read global news, journal articles and a wide range of books. And if they actively engage the world around them, in one semester of living their lives in the same location, they’ve likely gained more than they would have in a year living passively in a foreign country.
We have a responsibility to learn about the world around us. What we forget to recognize is that the world is right in front of us, every day of our lives.
Contact Jasmine Tatah at [email protected].