There are a spate of articles written by mostly well-educated upper to upper middle class people, either in yuppie or faux-hemian packaging, that go something along the lines of this: Just graduated? In your early twenties? Drop everything now — because if you aren’t traveling, you’re making a huge mistake.
And then they usually go on to describe their own journey… their backpacking trip through India wherein they found Eat Pray Love-style enlightenment, that whirlwind year abroad teaching in South Korea and how they learned the value of friendship (or fast food or whatever), when they risked it all and extended their Birth Right trip to Israel, et al. The end is always the same: They are now worldly, absolved of Millennial Regret. And you, Reader, should follow in their footsteps, if you don’t want to die alone in a cubicle.
As silly as some of these articles are, it’s not hard to feel like you’ve taken a really wrong turn when you’re looking at all those pretty Thai beaches from your MacBook. So here’s the flip side: why you don’t have to do it now.
1. The popular conception of “travel” to begin with.
“Real traveling” tends to mean two things: either you go to a huge city (read: New York), or you go somewhere “exotic.”
Compared to where I live now, Lincoln, Nebraska is geographically far, culturally, socioeconomically, architecturally, and to some extent, probably even linguistically different. It would be naive to assume that they didn’t have their own local customs, cuisine, landmarks, museums — all the hallmarks of what we should see as “traveling.” It would be as much of a culture shock to live in Nebraska as it would be to live in a small town in Ireland and with the major difference that I would be able to legally work. But if I moved to Nebraska tomorrow, nobody would applaud me for “making the right decision” and “seeing the world.” Why?
Even if we view traveling through the lens that it’s about the experiences you have instead of the places you go, why is an experience on another continent inherently more valuable than an experience had in the United States? Would I not be learning perspective living in a state as dissimilar to the one I live in as you can get? Or does it only matter if I got a stamp in my passport?
If you break it down even further, you then have two types of “exotic” travel… First world and third world. Your yuppies will recommend first world travel—you must go to France, you must go to Italy, oh, and you must go to Berlin. Your fauxhemians will suggest the latter, where they’ll then recommend you teach English or translate if you run out of money. Both are indispensable to personal development and if you’re a heterosexual white man, both will have women that will love you, bro.
2. The whole “Go to X and Find Yourself” model is problematic.
Going to a country that doesn’t have, say, easy access to running water and making a bunch of Facebook posts about how to “put your life into perspective” is a shitty thing to do and I don’t think I have to explain why. Economic disadvantage or just plain old cultural differences shouldn’t bolster your quest for personal meaning.
The White Savior crap isn’t going to make you a better-rounded person, it’s going to make you more of an asshole. Viewing what you interpret as other people’s suffering (or what is, in actuality, other people’s suffering) isn’t and should never be a means to increased empathy, improved interpersonal skills, or spiritual growth.
The prevailing argument is that if you don’t have money to travel, you don’t need it. And that’s exactly the kind of argument that someone who’s never NOT had money makes. It’s not all that different from, “It’s actually not that great to have money.”
4. You have time.
You have time to travel—there’s no door that closes that says you can’t be adventurous, or see the world, once you hit 30. And let’s be real, we know by “in your twenties,” most of these articles mean 21 to 25. If you want to build the foundation of your career, save money, go to grad school, or even the dreaded start a family you don’t have to do it right now. Things don’t magically become less fun as you grow older, you just experience them differently.
It’s about time, as a culture, we stop putting a time limit on living your life. You’re not going to expire. It’s okay to slow down. And it’s okay if North America is the only continent you’ll ever call home. It doesn’t make you lesser person, in the same way that being able to call Europe, Asia, Africa, or Australia home in addition won’t magically bestow you with all the world’s insight.
I’m not against traveling and I’m not against traveling in your twenties. But it’s not the only way to live your life, and we should stop guilting people who don’t want to or simply can’t do it.