A place for new ideas to settle.

30 July 2012

Traveling as a Consciousness-Raiser

My friend Quinn at The Passport Epilogues writes about using travel as a means of self-improvement. And maybe becoming a superhero. The merits of traveling abroad can be quite profound, especially when approached with an attitude of humility and mindfulness. We can't shy away from the unknown, especially if it might be a bit challenging:
When you travel, you throw yourself into unfamiliar territory. The rules you used to play by at home might no longer apply. When a society values a different set of skills and attitudes than the ones you have carefully fostered over the years, you learn the hard way that in other areas you are severely lacking. Travel exposes your weaknesses, and most of us aren’t comfortable having our faults laid out on the table. But at the end of the day that’s the only way we can really work on them and make ourselves better. Throw yourself into a truly challenging situation, and after you crash and burn a few times you will emerge that much stronger. So don’t think of it as a weakness so much as a challenge.
This is exactly right. Perhaps just as good as exposing weaknesses, though, unfamiliarity can also reveal hidden strengths. For example, I planned and went on a month-long tour of Europe in the summer of 2008, fresh out of high school, with at most two friends and no "adults." Once there, I discovered I had a sort of affinity for the various transit systems. My friends, meanwhile, were hopelessly confused.

25 July 2012

“Weirdness” and the burdens of volunteerism

This is a response to Maddy Vonhoff’s  “Only WEIRD People Volunteer” post at The Passport Epilogues. If you haven’t read it already, do so now.

Growing up near Seattle, my impression of “volunteering abroad” was that of idealistic suburban upper-middle-class white kids going to a less well off country for a little bit, then coming back with a bunch of emotional stories of personal enrichment and maybe even a few more stars in their eyes. In short, it was a very “feel-good” activity, and I don’t remember hearing much about the reason for volunteering other than “they need X!” My own parents, on the other hand, encouraged me to join them in donating to charity, especially the Toys For Tots program that gives donated Christmas presents—toys, but also warm clothing—to needy local families at Christmastime.

Apparently this isn’t an isolated perception. Maddy points out that the overwhelming majority of volunteer workers in developing countries are “WEIRD”: White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratized. These factors often bias volunteers into misaiming their generosity, harming the cause or even becoming part of the problem. Inevitably, the topic of “privilege” comes up, and here I plan to deviate from Maddy’s analysis a bit. Using a slightly different lens to look at privilege, I want to weight each factor in the WEIRD scheme, and suggest how each might affect the perceptions of an eager Western volunteer.