In America, an avoidance (realized or not) of international travel is deep in our bones.
I had never given it much thought, growing up. However, my own personal experience was the perfect example of this. As I grew up, I only ever went on one vacation with my family — to Colorado when I was 16. My dad has traveled to Mexico a few times with his work, and my mom went to the Bahamas for a high school graduation trip when she was 18, but the whole idea of international travel has never seemed to be a priority. Maybe we thought the resources or time just weren’t there for us to do it.
Why International Travel Is Important
The more time that’s gone by, the more this thought has continued to stick, though. When I was 20, frustrated with having had little actual “world” experience, I decided to begin doing what I could to see what I could and pick a different domestic trip every year. Towards the end of college, I began looking into different opportunities to travel abroad, but this fear of disrupting my life always stopped me short. I had money to save, a career to attend to, a relationship to pursue; I couldn’t take the extra step I needed to get outside my comfort zone.
As a teacher, I always reaffirmed this idea to my students that international travel was and should be a desirable goal. It can change you, I’d say, make you think differently, and help you become part of the inclusive global world, which grows larger every day. I was convincing my kids, but the problem was, I hadn’t yet fully convinced myself as was evidenced by the fact that I hadn’t traveled abroad yet. What was keeping me from international travel?
Now having had the chance to live in a foreign country since August 2016 and talk to a variety of people, I find myself wondering what the hell stopped me and others from doing traveling internationally. I’ve come up with a few ideas as to why Americans seem to choose home over the great abroad. Though this list is and could never be exhaustive, they are a few of the thoughts I’ve considered as to why this dilemma exists.
1. An American’s (Lack of) Passport
Did you know that Americans can visit 174 countries without needing to apply for a visa? Americans have the 8th most powerful passport in the world, but only about 36% of Americans even own one. Case in point, I didn’t own one until this past year, though I’ve been perpetually planning on getting one. Realize: That means roughly half of Americans have never been abroad at all. For America being the most powerful and globalizing force on the planet, it’s awfully disconcerting that its citizens haven’t seen much of it.
To put some icing on the cake, half of the international travel that does occur goes to only Canada and Mexico, places that didn’t even require a passport until 2007. There’s a vast, expansive world out there, over 200 countries, but apparently, the ambition to get there just doesn’t exist. Getting your passport is super easy, and it only took two weeks for mine to be mailed to me.
2. The American Backyard
To be fair, America is a giant country with many sights to be seen. Americans actually travel the most in the world besides the Finns, taking an average 6.7 trips a year; but it’s all mostly domestic. Granted, America is two and a half times the size of the entire European Union; local communities exist of all sorts of cultures in large metropolitan cities. That being said, popping into Little India your next time to Chicago or LA isn’t the same as walking around Asia. Don’t fool yourself. Going to Disney World or Las Vegas doesn’t help you delve into a completely different culture.
Moreover, traveling to new destinations makes us smarter by forging new neurological connections in our brain. We react faster to new events. Plus, if you need any other reason to travel the world fantastic, know that people report feeling more romantic or confident when they do so.
3. The American Divide
Honestly, it can seem daunting to hop the pond. With the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other, traveling further away than the Caribbean can be time-consuming and expensive. I get it. But with the Internet and other conveniences like eBooks, long flights don’t have to be a waste of time. (Heck, why not even talk to the person you’re sitting next to? There’s an idea). Plus, inexpensive flights can be found during many times of the year. This is true even for favorite destinations like Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, or Madrid, with round-trip flights only costing 750-800 bucks.
Employ a few other cost-saving measures like staying in a hostel instead of a five-star hotel or traveling where the dollar buys you more such as Malaysia or Myanmar. You can actually save money while abroad if you’re smart. Plus, once you’re there, flights, trains, or other methods are much cheaper, making a multi-country trip totally feasible.
4. An American Work Life
The sad fact is, Americans get less vacation time than their peers in Europe, with about 20 days difference. On top of that, Americans have a bad habit of not even taking their measly 12 vacation days a year. They cite fears about getting behind at work. Yes, Americans seem to like work, but the truth is, people perform better at their jobs when they take ALL their vacation time. (And don’t try to spend it making company calls!)
5. The American Complex
Whether it’s ignorance or lack of care, Americans just seem less ambitious about traveling abroad than other countries’ citizens. In my time in Korea, it hasn’t been uncommon to meet students who are constantly flitting from Japan to Vietnam to Hong Kong and back. They love traveling and think it is important. Compare that to the average American who thinks that America has everything that they need. They’re comfortable here at home. And while I am proud to live in a country self-proclaimed as a huge melting pot, there are other locations just as diverse and beautiful (hello, Singapore!). Too, maybe more traveling would dispel some of those nausea-inducing shouts of “‘Merica!” I hear from time to time by cultivating a sense of inclusion among our populace.
6. A Uniquely American Fear
The media, particularly since 9/11, has at times crafted this argument that traveling is dangerous, especially for Americans. This may be true if you travel to countries in the Middle East, but I can’t adequately express, for instance, the frustration I’ve often felt at a family member’s (perhaps innocent but naive) attempt to joke about or warn us concerning our trip to South Korea — South Korea! — one of the more successful 1st world countries on this entire globe, a country strongly embedded with the US’s own military infrastructure.
During our winter trip, we met locals as well who talked about their countries as safe places, not places that Americans should be afraid of, as were their impressions, especially in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country. Though terrorism has seen a rise around the world, the chance you will be caught up in it is incredibly small (and in fact, you are likely safer in many international cities than in your own hometown). From all of our experiences, locals have been nothing but kind and generous and helpful to us in our times of need, offering great advice (or sadly) treating us even better than the native peoples. That being said, when traveling abroad, you must remain aware of travel advisories and your own safety.
Feeling Defensive? Uncomfortable?
One more thing to note, though not necessarily an American consideration, is that international travel is easier depending on previous life choices. While this post refers to the average American, some Americans might feel like they don’t have the means to travel. That may be so. But I would still argue that there are many options out there that bypass the costs of travel — if you make the sacrifice or effort to obtain them.
Yes, it might require working for someone; but hey, if you have your expenses accounted for, if you’re given a stipend, and if you get to LIVE ABROAD, is that too much to ask for? Additionally, life decisions obviously impact your opportunities. Poor financial decisions, trouble with the law, or deciding to start a family can eliminate many opportunities — but they still don’t make it impossible.
My Goal in International Travel
My message to you is that this life is within your reach. You can have these adventures, memories, and experiences if you just decide to take it. And if you felt like this post “attacked you” in any certain way, then maybe that sensitivity is something you should explore. It’s easy to attack or discredit but harder to self-examine.
Thankfully, the hagwon we work for gives extended weekends every two months! Opportunities to travel extensively while we’re here in Asia are everywhere.
This past month during our 10-day winter hiatus, we took what will likely be our most ambitious trip during our time here. We dashed through the three countries of Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Moreover, my best friend from home decided to fly out for the trip, giving us a chance to share in the magic of Asia with her.
As an avid planner, I researched and planned a determined itinerary. We would catch as many of the sights as we could (smells, tastes, feelings, and sounds included at modest price). I began in November and put the final touches on it as we walked those countries’ streets. Each step was an imprimatur to Danny’s and my decision to travel the world and bring it home with us.
A Brief Summary?
We saw a multitude of things: We explored temples, shrines, and mosques; had conversations with ethnic Indian, Chinese, and Singaporean peoples; climbed mountains and some of the tallest towers in the world; and ate such delicious street food. We probably won’t get the chance to see such attractions for some time, especially on Christmas or NYE.
But that’s all I’ll say for now. In my next few posts, I will delve into each of our days on the trip. But before then, I implore you to take a chance and plan a trip for yourself. Traveling is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself or another. Moreover, it is something that will change your life with the memories of different people, places, and cultures you meet.
What About You?
What has stopped you from international travel in the past? And what do you need to do to convince yourself to just do it? If you are now a frequent traveler, what influenced you the most? I’d love to hear your ideas and comments below!