See the World

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We'll get back to the whiny wealthy poor in a moment. For now, let's consider a different kind of want -- the lack of experience in the wide world that, according to a reader message I quoted here recently, is where many Americans are impoverished. I said that I agreed -- and that my let's-improve-America plans all included getting more Americans to see the world (Peace Corps, teaching English, bumming around, whatever) early in life.

A PhD candidate begs to differ:

>>Your post bugged me.

I'm an engineering student at MIT, and I haven't traveled much outside of the US, mostly because I've doubted the utility of doing so. I imagine it would be fun to experience different cultures, to discover how the French bake, or to wake up at a bed-and-breakfast in a foreign land. But how much does that help me? In the context of "fixing America," how much does it help America?

I've witnessed friends who've gone off to do fellowships or study abroad programs in foreign lands that have amounted to glorified vacations. I stayed behind in America to do computer science research because I wanted to maximize my impact. I'm a little jealous of my friends. :-)

Is there really value in exploring foreign lands? Or I have become a curmudgeon already?<<

Short answer: Yes, and yes! For the longer answer, let's hear from a few other readers. First, this:

>>I have many, many regrets in my thirty-five years on planet Earth. Near the very top of this increasingly long list is never having studied abroad. My wife, on the other hand, has always been more sophisticated than I, and she spent a semester in Australia. It was certainly one of the most formative experiences in her life. My younger sister, also more sophisticated, spent a semester in Florence. It made such an impact on her that nearly a decade later she got married in a Tuscan village (it was a destination wedding, she still lives here). My mother-in-law did a Peace Corps stint in Nigeria, and the zebra skin she came back with more than forty years ago still covers the floor in our family room.

Three years ago today, I was wrapping up my honeymoon in northern Spain, and I probably think about it once a day. When I am not thinking about Barcelona or the trip to the British Isles my parents to me on after college, I am watching Anthony Bourdain or reading European history.

The obvious point is that a trip overseas fundamentally changes who you are, and for the better. I listen to the news differently, read the news differently, taste food differently, and generally contemplate the world differently. Your point about getting younger adults overseas is a brilliant point, and should I have children I will encourage them to spend as much of their youth in a foreign place as possible. But let make a larger, perhaps naïve insight.

I was, mostly, in favor of the 2003 Iraq War and believed strongly in our reliance on American militarism. Just a few weeks in Western Europe cured me of that. Imagine if I spent time in places where the people didn't look like me!! But when I reflected upon this evolution, it occurred to me that if in 2002 George W. Bush, whom I believe to be a good man, spent one season travelling with Rick Steves, we would have stayed out of Iraq. Americans who don't travel abroad are, inevitably, ethnocentric. Those of us who are fortunate enough to travel have a different appreciation for our world, and are far more reluctant to wreak havoc upon other cultures.<<

Another:

>>I was just looking at the Foreign Policy's 65 Most Important Cities (or some such title) and feeling so grateful that I have visited so many of the cities. I am in my mid-50s and when I look back on my life my travels are the one area where I regret nothing and wouldn't change a thing (except perhaps to have traveled even more).

Now I live in Nevada, known for Las Vegas, but in reality full of gigantic (someone familiar only with the eastern part of the country can hardly imagine how huge) swaths of empty land and rural towns. Many of the counties have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, suicide, and other misery indicators in the country. I look around these towns and counties and now know what it's like to live somewhere, especially as a teenager, where there is nothing to do and little hope of going anywhere but where you've been all your life.

Forget London and Berlin and Paris. Take these kids to San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or Acadia National Park. I am not trying to be patriotic, or parochial; I'm suggesting their poverty of experience is so severe that a trip a mere 200 or 2000 miles away, inside their own country, would do them a world of good.<<

From someone who saw the world via the Peace Corps:

>>I had the opportunity in 1980 to travel for about four months throughout Mexico, accompanying and documenting for a freelance guy who was gathering items for the Textile Museum in Washington, DC. Having witnessed the people in various locales, primarily children, carrying water to their homes ensures that I will never again turn on the tap in my home without at least considering how lucky I am to have that option ... which is the beginning of a train of thought that involves all sorts of political conclusions, like the value of public services in relation to concerns about tax rates, and so on.

And it seemed to me, once I returned, that I was much more sensitive to the insularity and limited context of so many opinions I heard from the non-travelers, or those whose experience of travel was merely to visit enclaves whose underlying purpose was to make visiting Mexico no different really than going to Miami. I have the opportunity to go with a friend to China some time in the next year, and I'm looking at that in the same way: the very idea of standing for the first time in my life on the other side of the earth seems so valuable just in and of itself that despite finding the inconveniences of travel generally overwhelming, I know I wouldn't miss it for the world.<<

And, from someone who saw the world via the Peace Corps, what exposure to the world can and cannot do:

>>The Peace Corps at least used to work wonders. Having been in Uganda as a PCV in the 1960s, I can tell you from my perspective now that I am in my 60s, it was the best and most confounding thing that ever happened to me. I know other volunteers of my vintage (including present and ex-husband) who say the same thing.

I agree with you wholeheartedly: get these kids out of the country; let them do something useful in a situation that they never expected to find themselves in. Let them learn that they don't need a lot of stuff; that there's wisdom and stupidity in other cultures as well as our own; that US values are not necessarily the best, or at least some aren't; that many people really don't regard the US as the promised land (or if they do, it's a totally unrealistic picture of the US they are regarding); that friendships can be made across cultures, but that you shouldn't think everyone is the same: you should learn to value, appreciate, enjoy difference.

The first caveat is that if a person is determined not to learn these things, you can't make it happen.

The second caveat is that really and truly longer stays are better. training is critical in language and in cultural (gasp) relativism and in the culture people are being sent to. It won't substitute for experience, but it will provide a bridge.<<

Hope this answers the query from MIT.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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