This is what I’ve concluded in London. I’ve spent so much of my life harboring deep pride about the cities I’ve seen, the airlines I’ve used, and the times I’ve moved, and finally I’ve decided that traveling is one of the most loaded status symbols I’ve ever abused. Very early on, people learn that the places we’ve been to are tremendous social currency for either bragging to friends or applying to college or jobs. In both cases, the assumption is that travel has made us into more tolerant, independent, and culturally aware people.
I think this is incorrect. I think that just as travel can genuinely break preexisting assumptions we have about the world and other people, it can lock worldviews into place or the kinds of people we surround ourselves with. Geographical location is only one way among many that people are different, and I think it’s very dangerous to assume that the plane tickets we buy come packaged with a new, “open mind.”
In high school, I used a Facebook map app called “Where I’ve Been” to passively brag about the countries I had been to. I wouldn’t have admitted that at the time, though, even if I had actually been reflective about it. I had been living in a beach community since middle school and had desperately wanted to start surfing to fit in, before seeing how my alien expat past was something of a social asset. This is not an uncommon realization. Even now, I hear people my age ticking off the many countries they’ve been to like a checklist, like proof of something achieved. The point is that travel can be used as almost direct evidence that we have exited comfort zones and broadened our horizons mentally.
I’m growing aware that in being so far from home, I have probably been the recipient of overly generous assumptions about my character. Yet as I continue my life of relative comfort in London, I realize this is generally undeserved. I may have broadened my mind in some ways, but in other ways I have chosen a familiar standard of life – only displaced. I have friends who will go to new restaurants and cafes each week with me, purchase tickets to museum exhibitions with me, and prioritize cultural events over class with me, and these are wonderful things that I love, please don’t get me wrong! But it is a lifestyle that is, ultimately, personally comfortable. Another example of the spectrum of character versus travel are the remarkably “international” individuals I have met who have also made some remarkably derogatory comments about all (literally) of the new, but specifically British, people they’ve met here. Hearing one student’s broad-based insults against the entire population felt so dissonant with what I knew of his past, but also helped retire my long-held assumptions about well-traveled people. Finally, to put the cap on this totally unscientific collection of anecdotal evidence, many of my most open-minded and -hearted friends are also the most self-proclaimed travel novices.
Perhaps I’m late in registering this, but there are entire socioeconomic brackets that span most of the world, such that someone could jet-set their way across the globe and still never extract themselves from the standard of living they are used to. Why? Because such extraction usually takes true psychological effort and usually much less financially. (A dear friend is experiencing exactly this, but with amazing and upbeat spirits, as she works temporarily in Nepal right now.) If travel means staying at the same kinds of hotels, eating at the same 5-star restaurants owned by the same set of top-notch chefs, and maintaining the same social circles the world over, is it still synonymous with being open-minded and culturally aware? If I did that, could I legitimately imply that travel has taught me more about humans and humanity? No, I don’t think it’s automatic like that, though once upon a time I did. Instead, I’m learning that opening up my eyes to other people and other situations in other countries takes true, conscious and concerted effort on my part, in my heart.
Travel is not a straight path to a nice, bankable personality trait. It’s an amplification of a choice we’ve already made: to meet people unlike us, or not. How we treat and behave with people in our own hometowns probably reveals more about how we treat those we face in the rest of the world. Travel will not make you more open-minded. You will make you more open-minded. And I will try to make me more open-minded, too.
(Some British people have told me that the British are known to talk about three main things: tea, weather and class. Have I been harping on the third in some subconscious move to be more British? Maybe I should move on to tea or weather for the next post. Tee hee.)
***Update: 2 May 2014
I’m studying for exams these days, and am now reading this critique on the concept of cosmopolitanism, by Craig Calhoun. I find the link between capitalism and the common use of the word “cosmopolitanism” particularly important and poignant:
Cosmopolitanism—though not necessarily cosmopolitan democracy—is now largely the project of capitalism, and it flourishes in the top management of multinational corporations and even more in the consulting firms that serve them. Such cosmopolitanism often joins elites across national borders while ordinary people live in local communities. This is not simply because common folk are less sympathetic to diversity—a self-serving notion of elites. It is also because the class structuring of public life excludes many workers and others. This is not an entirely new story. One of the striking changes of the nineteenth and especially twentieth centuries was a displacement of cosmopolitanism from cities to international travel and mass media. International travel, moreover, meant something different to those who traveled for business or diplomacy and those who served in armies fighting wars to expand or control the cosmopolis. If diplomacy was war by other means, it was also war by other classes who paid less dearly for it.
– from “The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travelers: Toward a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism” (2003)