As Americans we are not encouraged to be globally minded. We are taught in school how America is such an important nation in the world, and how great we are as a country because of our unique democratic government. But are we truly as great as we claim?
I had the privilege during my university years of becoming friends with a woman from India. Having attended a British boarding school in India during her early years, her English was probably better than mine. Besides English, she could speak at least two Indian languages and perhaps others as well. The same age as me, she had already traveled to a number of countries before coming to the United States to attend university.
My own experience to that point was so vastly different. Born and raised an American citizen, fifth generation born in my home state, I was taught to believe I was privileged beyond that of other people living in other countries. I had never once stepped foot outside my own country before I went to college. Not for lack of interest necessarily, but certainly a lack of means. And I had experienced only a tiny fraction of my own country even, having been to only four of the fifty states.
I spoke only English. In my small home town, I had the opportunity to learn to speak French, and I chose not to do so. In college I started to learn Spanish, though I never came near to reaching fluency.
I remember there being a number of foreign exchange students in my high school, though regrettably, I never got to know any of them very well. It seems to me also, that this program was presented as a great opportunity for foreign students to come and experience the greatness of America. I don’t remember it being presented as an opportunity for country-bound citizens like myself to experience the richness of other cultures.
During my university years I did manage to step across the border once into Canada, and on another occasion into Mexico. I visited another three western states, broadening my domestic experience to an entire tenth of my nation. I had the privilege to travel to Nicaragua with some of my peers on a mission trip where I was just another ignorant white American who believed I was there to make life better for those less fortunate.
Curious now as to whether my experience was unique due to my self-imposed “shyness” as a child? Or was it a result of being part of the American middle-class, having the means to get by, but not enough for things like international travel? Or is it that the American people are actively discouraged from traveling abroad? I decided a little investigating was in order.
I learned that the United States lands second on the Top 10 Countries That Travel The Most. And not just once, but on this list as well. However, Americans are far more likely to travel within our own country than travel abroad, preferring “to explore their own country more than understanding the world outside.”
Our employment practices discourage travel. I found that “the United States is the only nation among advanced economies that does not provide a legal guarantee of paid leave.” Passports are expensive to obtain. Travel abroad is considered dangerous. We are cautioned against theft, bad water, violence and disease.
Then I ran across this great article on why Americans don’t travel internationally, by Natasha Alden, which seemed to confirm much of what I was already thinking. The one reason given by the author I find the most tragic is that Americans are “just plain old ignorant.” She goes on to say:
There is a serious lack of information about the world affairs in the United States. We seem to be in an isolated bubble, where Americans are afraid of the unknown, or even worse, just don’t care.
We claim greatness for our nation. But the only ones listening to our claims are other Americans. How great can our country be if we never encourage our children to leave it? To go and experience the realities of other world views?
I believe the United States is a great country. But not the only great country. I regret my own lack of global experiences, and I hope to encourage more curiosity about the world beyond our borders in my own children.
What is your global experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.