Hung out with the Photog last night for the first time in awhile, which was both enjoyable and missed. The conversation turned to our study abroad experiences last year –– naturally, as it seems that we, like everyone else I know who went abroad, cannot keep from bringing it up –– and got interesting when we discovered that both of us had repeatedly been made to feel lesser by other study-abroadders for, as the implication went, “taking the easy way out.” Now, true, the Photog and I both went to Westernized countries: she spent a year in Spain, and I one semester in England. But that doesn’t strike me as a reason to belittle our choices (I went to London because I’ve always wanted to, and same with the Photog in Spain, and we don’t regret it). And I don’t want to go on speaking for the Photog here, but most of the people who had, upon learning of my SA home base, acted differently (e.g. conscendingly) toward me had studied in a far less privileged location, often in South Asia or Africa or on occasion the Middle East. Because I had been in a First World, Western country –– and particularly because it was an English-speaking country –– they seemed to treat my SA experience as lesser, somehow. As less important, personally significant, and/or life-changing than theirs, which had been naturally much harder.
To these people, I wish to say this: I understand that your study abroad experience was harder than mine. I am impressed you chose that particular country, because I would have been too afraid of the culture and language gap. I can’t say “I totally know what you mean,” because I don’t; the culture gap between your host country and the U.S. is much wider than the culture gap between England and the U.S. (Particularly if you did not speak the language of the region you were in.) It’s pretentious of me and demeaning to you if I claim to “understand” what you went through; I wasn’t there. But by correlation, you cannot treat me as if my experience in a First World, Western country was any less eye-opening; you were not there. It’s equally problematic to assume that because I speak the official language of England, that means that English/British and American culture are identical. They are not. England is a different country and thusly has a very different culture, one that also requires adjustment to. Was my adjustment to my host country as severe/difficult as yours? I doubt it. But living there is not the same thing as living in the U.S. So let’s just get that out there.
In fact, the very attitude I am speaking against –– the idea that I, and the Photog, and Emma for that matter, “took the easy way out” –– seems to hang on the concept that by going to a Third World country, you have lived a more authentic life. That studying abroad in First World countries makes our experiences less, somehow, that they do not count as much in the long run because they were full of privileges you did not have in your host country. I understand that. I’m not saying that Western or First World countries are not more privileged than Third World nations. However, it’s not logical or fair to treat our experiences as if they were any less life-changing than yours. In our culture –– particularly liberal and hipster cultures –– it seems that the less privileged something is, the more “real” or “authentic” (and thereby “cooler”) we take it to be; why is that? We are alive, all of us, so does that not make everything we do and experience –– regardless of our class ––”real”? Why is it that the poorer something is, the more authentic we Americans seem to consider it? And furthermore, why is authenticity so correlated to coolness? Is it just a standard case of white/privileged guilt? Look at Slumdog Millionaire. It swept the Oscars with its new-India, globalized fairy tale about a poor boy from the slums of Mumbai, and at the same time there are critics out there who claim the movie is little more than a “glorification of poverty.” Poverty porn is what it’s called, this romanticization of economic difficulty, and there’s a debate whether it’s exploitative or ultimately helpful. (As for me, I don’t think Slumdog tries to be exploitative… but I can see why others would argue it. Admittedly, I also love that movie.) The question I have to ask is, why do we live in a world where poverty porn exists? Is it another example of Us versus Them, except in this case They are not enemies, but people to be pitied and admired (“their lives are so mch harder! they’re so scrappy and vibrant!”)? From a socioeconomic, feminist, and technological point of view the inhabitants of Indian slums have it harder than we do, no doubt. But what are we doing to help them? What are we doing to fight poverty back here in the U.S.? Because from all I’m seeing, at least, it looks like we’re only complaining about how easy us U.S.-ers have it, and how those little kids in Slumdog have to live in the slums again, now that the movie’s done filming, even after getting to see Disney World when they were in America and isn’t that awful! It’s the trend of “spreading awareness” again, as if awareness is enough to cure the world of its problems.
(To clarify, I’m not trying to insinuate that all people who studied in Third World countries romanticize poverty, or that those who do are the only ones to romanticize it, or that their experiences abroad are any less life-altering. Of course their experiences are personally significant and life-altering! But so were mine and the Photog’s and Emma’s. That’s all.)