By Caitlin Kelly
A stunningly small percentage of American students ever study abroad, writes Nick Kristof in The New York Times:
American universities should also be sending people abroad, but they are still quite insular. The number of Americans studying abroad has tripled over the last 20 years, but, still, fewer than 10 percent of college students study overseas during undergraduate years. Three times as many foreigners study in America as the other way around. (note: my emphasis added.)
(A shout-out goes to Goucher College in Baltimore, which requires students to study abroad. Others should try that.)
All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.
And it’s not uncommon for Americans, of any age or level of formal education, to speak only one language, English, while Europeans who speak only three or four feel embarrassed by their cultural incompetence.
Canadians grow up in a nation officially bilingual, with every bit of packaging and all government messaging dans les deux langues officielles.
And, compared to other nations, relatively few Americans travel beyond their borders, even to Canada, where I was born and raised. From the Huffington Post:
Well, this can be said: somewhere between 11.6 and 14.6 million Americans actually traveled overseas in 2009, taking a trip lasting on average seven nights (students and travelers visiting family and friends stay significantly longer) and usually visiting just one country. These four major geographic areas are our most likely destinations: Europe (35% of all U.S. trips), Caribbean (21% of all trips), Asia (19% of all trips) and South America (9% of all trips).
America’s most popular overseas countries are: England (9% of all trips), France (7%), Italy (7%), Germany (5%), Dominican Republic (5%), Jamaica (5%), Japan (4%), China (4%), India (4%) and Spain (4%). Other significant countries visited include: Bahamas (3%) and Costa Rica (3%). With just six percent of Americans trips going to the Middle East, and even fewer, just three percent, visiting the whole continent of Africa, and two percent going to Australia/New Zealand.
My recent working trip to Nicaragua made it the 38th country I’ve been to, so far; I was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued travel so highly and could afford to visit Europe and Latin America and the South Pacific.
And my own work in journalism, has also sent me — on others’ dime — to places as far-flung as Copenhagen, Istanbul and Sicily. I’ve lived in England, France, Mexico, Canada and the U.S.; each place has taught me something I never knew before.
I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for four months when I was 14, which instilled a life-long love of that country and created the basis for my Spanish-language skills, which I used in Nicaragua once more. The photographer on our recent trip lives (!) a few blocks from my old apartment in Cuernavaca, so speaking Spanish meant I could chat with him as well.
Yes, you can read blogs and books and watch movies, but nothing can really prepare you for the sights, sounds and smells of real daily life in a land far away.
I like the old joke — one fish says to another: “How’s the water?”
Living your entire life in only one country/culture/language is severely limiting. It’s hard to appreciate that you live in any sort of economic/political/religious/social culture, (i.e. accepting and conforming to norms and standards of behavior) until you plunge into a quite different one.
And, yes, it’s scary!
What if you get sick? (Most places have doctors and hospitals.) What if you get lost? (People are generally kind and helpful.) Will the buses be safe? Maybe not. But you’ll figure it out. There’s a kind of self-reliance to be gained from straying beyond the normal and known that creates a terrific self-confidence, especially for women.
One of the best-read blog post here at Broadside? How to travel alone safely as a woman.
Learning to dress and speak and behave in culturally-respectful ways — (never touch a Thai person’s head; don’t ask a French person to show you around their home; present a business card to a Japanese person with both hands) — can only serve you well in a globally-connected economy.
And understanding that owning more than one pair or shoes or books or a television — or eating even once a day — means wealth to millions of people is a helpful exercise in awareness and gratitude.
Here’s a post by an American photographer who took the plunge:
I’ve come a long way in realizing my dreams. And that was by just going for it. I never did make a plan. Once on the road, with the narrow margins of profit versus costs in travel, I never saved money. Making money while traveling is an exception, not a rule.
Even so, in my mid-thirties now, I have only a few regrets. Chief among them is the people who have been negatively affected by my lack of plan or savings. I’ve overextended my stay on friends’ and relatives’ couches, for example, when breaks between press junkets lasted longer than I thought they would. I’ve had moments where I couldn’t afford a plane ticket home.
But I don’t regret the nights spent sleeping in bus stations or the days without food to save money…It hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t change the decision I made, those four years ago, to leave everything and travel.
I would advise others considering a similar decision not to listen to those who do not support your dream. But do not shame them for doubting, either. We are all different in our levels of courage – and in the way we view how life should be lived.
Last week I had dinner with a young photographer friend, who’s 26 and still in college and $70,000 in student debt and dying to go live and work work in Beirut, Lebanon.
Go! Jose and I told him, without hesitation. The hell with two more years sitting in school, writing term papers on journalism in Chicago; he’s already got excellent skills and we’ve already started hooking him up with people who know the place and have recently lived there.
Here’s one of my favorite newspaper columns, Expat Lives, that runs in the weekend Financial Times, in which men and women talk in detail about why they chose to leave their home country and what life is like in their adopted one.
Do you speak languages beyond English? Which ones and why?
Have you traveled beyond your country’s borders?
How has it changed your perspective?