All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it. – Samuel Johnson
I am generally not the most positive person about America. I think we’re largely fat, uncultured, and incredibly self-centered. Whenever I go overseas, these beliefs generally become stronger as I see them in contrast to folks in the rest of the world. While I don’t go quite so far as to pretend to be Canadian, I am most definitely an American apologist when I’m abroad, and I try to avoid associating with other Americans, to avoid giving locals a negative impression. In Switzerland, I even went so far as to learn a degree of Swiss German so that I could avoid some of the more obnoxious groups of tourons by pretending not to speak English.
However, that said, I feel that traveling, especially living abroad as an expat, has helped me become a better American. The best way to gain perspective on something is to take a step back from it, and while traveling and living abroad, I was able to see the USA in a different light than I had before. Below are a few ways that traveling and living abroad has made me a better American:
The more I travel, the more I feel that the quote “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” is incredibly apt. It is all too easy to ignore and even discredit our own cultural traditions in favor of more “exotic” ones abroad. In reality, American traditions are just as fascinating to a Russian or a Nepali as their traditions are to us, but since we are surrounded by them our entire lives, we begin, over time, to devalue them.
Living abroad made me realize that people everywhere feel like this. My Korean students were bored to tears at the thought of being made to watch a presentation of traditional Korean drumming, just as I used to think that things like fireworks and BBQs were “quaint”. No matter where in the world you live, you eventually become blind to the more interesting aspects of the culture you live in, but traveling can help you to open your eyes.
Not only do I now appreciate American traditions considerably more, but I also am always on the lookout for unique bits of American culture. When I grew up in the Texas/Louisiana area, I used to see crawfish boils as “culture-less” undertakings. I now see that in fact, it is quite the opposite – they are celebrations of Cajun culture, a unique facet of the American south. There are thousands of really awesome traditions and customs of American culture that most of us barely even notice, and traveling abroad can help bring those into focus.
I was never all that big on politics. Sure, I was registered to vote, but as a rather staunch liberal, I never really bothered to do all that much research on candidates, nor did I pay all that much attention to international politics. When I was in Europe during the Bush administration, I found myself frequently having to explain that no, not all Americans are conservative, gun-loving, pro-war nuts. Being forced to explain our political system made me pay attention to it all that much more.
Living in South Korea got me into international politics, as it’s hard to live next door to a place like North Korea without being at least somewhat interested in the machinations of all the countries involved. South Korea was also going through something of a political upheaval at the time, which I began to follow. Even after I left my life as an expat and returned to the USA, I found myself following international politics much more than I ever did before. Considering how important it is to understand politics if you live in a democracy, and how little most Americans pay attention to it, I feel that my increased interest in politics due to my time abroad has made me a better American.
Thanks to the Korean concept of “bali bali”, Koreans are good at building things quickly. Unfortunately, they’re not all that great at building them well. Even after my apartment on Jindo was renovated, I continually had problems like mold, ants, and at one point, my kitchen cabinets falling off my wall. Before it was renovated, it was a moldy, smelly pit lacking truly modern plumbing that I had serious doubts about spending a whole year in. The flooring wasn’t even attached to the floor! The building was built in the aftermath of the Korean War and was built quickly to answer a need for more efficient housing in the area. Unfortunately, speed and cost were the two main concerns when it was produced, and most Korean construction even today tends to be of a considerably lower quality than one would find in the USA.
I also learned just how privileged we are in the USA to have the variety of goods available to us that we do. Most grocery stores in the USA have an “international” section, and Americans eat a wide variety of cuisines on a regular basis, ranging from Italian to Chinese to Indian. Even in non-Seoul major cities in Korea, I was hard pressed to find any non-Korean food in stores, and outside of Seoul you’re pretty much out of luck for non-fast food restaurants. While I did enjoy some aspects of Korean commercial practices such as a heavy usage of free delivery and the ease of purchasing goods directly from local farmers, shopping in the USA is a much easier process. To this day, American grocery stores stir a degree of awe in me. Living abroad made me realize just how good we have it here, something I took for granted for most of my life.
When I got the crap torn out of my leg by a dog in Korea, my four hospital visits, shots, stitches and all, cost me a whopping total of around $80. I got four cavities filled for around the same cost (it could have been cheaper, but I went to one of the top dentists in the province). It boggles my mind that we do not already have universal healthcare here in the USA. I know that it’s “on the way”, but we should have had this a long, long time ago. A healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and I can’t believe that so many Americans don’t understand that correlation.
Likewise, while I’m not necessarily for extremely high, protectionist import tariffs, seeing the economic benefit that Korea got from being relatively self-reliant has made me really question the opposite reliance that the USA has on imports from places like China and India. I understand that budgets are important, but I also believe that the focus on domestic production that most other places in the world seem to have (at least those I have traveled to and lived in) can really help boost and protect the national economy.
While living abroad and traveling has not put all that many new ideas into my head (though the import/export issue mentioned was new to me), it has at the very least made me all that much more aware of how they affect America, and how we compare to the rest of the world. As much as I like the USA, we’re not #1, but traveling abroad has really made me see and understand some of the changes that I think could help us become a better country.
In short, while I don’t think that traveling abroad can completely change opinions, I think that it is a good way to gain the perspective necessary to truly understand one’s own country and culture. In the long run, being away from our homes can make us appreciate them all the more.
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