As I’m sure many of you know, a semester abroad is a wonderful opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a new culture. However, for many students it’s become an opportunity to travel each weekend so they can post an Instagram in front of an eye-catching spot – I can pull up at least 10 posts of girls in front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague. I’m not trying to say it’s a bad thing to take pictures in front of the touristy spots. In fact, I’m always pushing back against the idea that when you travel you should avoid the touristy spots and tours. They’re touristy for a reason! These are the things that make whatever destination you’re visiting famous, and it’s worth it to go and see. Rather, what I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how different cultures interact, and how study abroad seems to be less about cultural exchange than a checklist to be completed by the end of the semester.
I have been thinking a lot about this topic recently, sparked mostly by reading an article about Western backpackers begging for money to fund their travel, even in some of the world’s poorest regions. It’s outrageous even reading that sentence! I read this article and felt a strong sense of embarrassment and shame for the ignorance of Western societies, the audacity of these travels who are so blind to the struggles of others, driven only by their self-absorbed desires to “see the world.”
I also thought about this concept of what it means to really see the world when I was on my spring break last week, when I visited Dubrovnik, Berlin and Amsterdam. I enjoyed all three cities for very different reasons, and maybe I’ll write a post about this amazing week of travel someday soon. But what I couldn’t help but think about the whole time I was on my spring break was just truly how expensive it was to immerse yourself in the culture. Trying local cuisine, shopping where the city-dwellers do, even getting around the city via public transport, it’s all just SO expensive. Even more so, trying to connect with the culture by visiting museums is such a privilege to have. It seems a little ridiculous that you would visit Amsterdam and not visit the Van Gogh museum, but spending 17 euros to walk around the museum and see the paintings you have seen a million replicas of seems ridiculous in other ways.
I am fortunate enough that I don’t have to worry about money significantly affecting my “experience” abroad. Of course I’m aware of how much I’m spending and try to consciously avoid frivolous purchases, but my parents have worked hard and I have saved enough money to be able to indulge in things like art museums and good restaurants and taking the metro. However, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when I think about just how many people are excluded from these experiences because of financial concerns. I’m not trying to suggest that cities shouldn’t charge for transportation, or that all museums should be free since I fully understand how cost affects quality, but my frustration with the current situation is strong.
What I want to call attention to is that beyond the fact that travel is a luxury, cultural understanding is a luxury too. Even if you never step foot outside of the place you were born and raised, trying to expose yourself to new cultures can be expensive. It is encouraging to know that many places recognize this deficit and are pushing initiatives to facilitate cultural interaction on a person-to-person level, but this is challenging for many people. I can already hear all of the criticism that this post will elicit, but I haven’t really ever thought about the privilege of exposure. Beyond the baseline costs of travel, there are considerable financial obstacles to gaining a world view, understanding new perspectives, and challenging what’s comfortable in your life. I can’t help but think about the political implications that this lack of understanding can have, specifically when it comes to partisan divides and electing government officials.