Privilege Insulating Itself: A Case of Traveling Abroad
If you’ve read my work or my Twitter feed for any period of time, you know that I had an awesome opportunity in college to study abroad at Oxford University during my junior year of college. In addition to that time, I have stamps in my passport from India, Japan, South Korea, Ecuador, Germany, France, and Italy. I calculated once, and I’ve spent about 10 solid days of my life in the air (which is a lot of time to spend in pressurized cabins with recycled air).
Oxford was my first major overseas journey – my first 9-hour, overnight flight, and my first time spending an extended period of time abroad. I remember being so exhausted when I got to customs at London Gatwick that I had to have the customs official repeat each question at least twice (she was understandably annoyed). The bus ride out to Oxford was a blur, and those first couple days were a confusing mess of rain, orientation tours, and jet lag. But amazingly, within about a week, I’d adjusted to the speed and tenor of the city, jumping up when someone asked for company to go to town and figuring out where all the best coffee shops and pubs were.
Within a month, I’d stopped walking down the wrong side of the sidewalk, started saying “sorry” when people bumped into me, and knew the route from my house to town so well that I could practically do it in my sleep. This was my new reality, and I loved every second of it.
My time abroad changed me in ways I’m still discovering, little shifts in how I view the world. It fundamentally changed who I am.
But, unlike Nick Kristof of the New York Times, I recognize that studying or living abroad is an experience that sits solidly within the realm of the privileged. The only reason I was able to go abroad was because I had enough funds from scholarship and school support to go. Even then, I had to scrimp and save my money to pay for my flight over, and relied on my parents’ help to pay for my flight back. I went over with a solid support system, and was thrown into an area where I was able to adapt and adjust – being extroverted and fairly neurotypical at the time helped me immensely.
My physical ability was an asset to my experience abroad. Someone who uses a wheelchair would have found Oxford hard at best, and utterly inaccessible at worst. The only way to get into the house where we lived was either up seven steps to the front door, or down five steps into the basement. All the rooms were on upper floors – my room was at the top floor, with three tall and narrow staircases to climb. That first day, I remember panting hard as I hauled my computer bag and backpack up the stairs, while our Junior Dean, Jonathan, came behind with my large suitcase.
Getting to town was a twenty-minute walk across busy roads, uneven sidewalks, and cobblestones. If you weren’t careful to look where you were walking, it was easy to stumble and fall over a jutting part of the sidewalk – as I did a couple times when I missed my step up over a curb.
Going to lectures meant going up long staircases in buildings that didn’t always have elevators (if they did, I sure as hell didn’t know about them). Leisure time activities consisted of feeding the ducks off a path in the park or going to a historic pub downtown. Even getting groceries frequently required the physical strength to carry gallons of milk back to the house, through traffic and across bumpy sidewalks. Going to the library to study meant climbing a set of stairs, as seen in the picture to the right.
Simply put, the program I participated in would be utterly inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities, a concern that is often ignored on American college campuses that are required to be ADA compliant. Studying abroad is simply not an option for a number of American citizens based on physical or mental ability alone, and that does not make them any less as citizens.
Financially, studying or living abroad remains the purview of the economically privileged, which I was at the time and still kind of am. We were informed during orientation at Oxford that our identification cards represented thousands of dollars in tuition money and that we needed to respect the access that this gave us. We were considered students of the university, with access to the various faculty (subject-specific) libraries, the famous Bodleian, and lectures. We could tour almost every college for free (some charged a couple of pounds if you weren’t a student of that specific college) and we got student discounts at the local shops. We were given stipends for food each month and had food groups that ate dinner together every night of the week, with “family meal” on Wednesdays when the entire house ate together. Our stipend didn’t need to be used for just food, and I used mine to pay for tickets to plays and local improv shows and books required for my tutorials (though many of those books were accessible from the libraries).
My program was 99% white. Most of us came from two parent households that were financially well off. Many of us had credit cards that our parents had given us for the time (I did not).
Again, the ability to even get a passport to travel abroad is the realm of the privileged. The vast majority of people on my program were single or had brought their spouse with them. All of us were returning to parents and had places secure for them upon return.
Kristof’s desire to well-intentioned, but like much of his work, his intentions do not translate to actually practical ideas. I am grateful that I’ve been able to travel abroad and that I was well enough at the time to do so (my mental health issues that came to the forefront during my time in Japan taught me just how dangerous it is to go into situations abroad without help).
I feel a bit like I’m raining on a parade here, but this is the reality of the situation. Until we have worked to dismantle systems of injustice on our home turf, it is useless to imply that those who do not travel are somehow lesser, have less to contribute, or less to say to the world at large. Travel can change you, yes, and if you have the ability and opportunity, I say you should go for it. But you should not feel pressured to do so because of some arbitrary hierarchy of who is or isn’t a well-rounded citizen.