The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Look at little me on my gap year! I’m so superior to other kinds of tourists!

We welcome back Lawrence Hunt to the Displaced Nation, who wrote a popular post for us in September about what it’s like to grow up in England with a mum who is an expat American. Today, in keeping with our theme of global philanthropy, he offers some thoughts on why the UK’s educated youth seems so preoccupied with the authentic, meaningful travel experience.

It’s hard to pinpoint when and how it started, but more and more UK students feel compelled to spend at least part of their gap years between secondary school and university doing their bit to save the world.

The wealthiest students were the first to pioneer this trend. Many of you may be familiar with Prince William’s gap year in Southern Chile with Raleigh International, an organization started by his father, to help build schools and teach English; and Prince Harry’s gap year in Lesotho to further his mother’s work with AIDS orphans.

But have you watched “Gap Yah,” a comedy video that’s been dominating the British corner of YouTube?

“Tarquin, yes, I can’t come shopping on the King’s Road today, because, yes, I’m literally in Burma.” A traveling student is on the phone to a friend back home, droning on about being subject to various experiences of “spiritual, cultural and political” significance, such as meeting a malaria-suffering woman with flies around her eyes, and then having “chundered [vomited] everywhere” due to excessive partying the night before.

The notion of a Hooray Henry returning home with stories of his interactions with noble, primitive cultures has really struck a chord with university students. As one exasperated YouTube user from Manchester University comments under the video: “I know so many people like this! Worst kind of person.”

The offense is made infinitely worse by the fact these kids have been so brazenly insulated from the realities of these places by wads of their parents’ money all the way through.

I love animals. I love kids. I want to save the world.

I’m one to talk. I did a gap year in China before going off to Warwick University in 2008. I chose China as I wanted to learn Chinese and see what it’s like to live under a post-communism communist regime. I took on a job as a teacher in a city called Wuhu in Anhui Province, and spent the next five months struggling to make myself understood above the noise of 60-plus unruly teenagers.

And yes, my friends who saw the “gap yah” video said it reminded them of me! (But I worked to pay for my trip, damn it!)

Did I help the kids? Maybe a little. Did I have fun? For sure. But I also came back with the realization that not much can be accomplished in just a few months by people who don’t speak the language and have little cultural training.

Judith Brodie, the director of Voluntary Service Overseas, one of Britain’s leading charities, concurs. Voluntourism has become big business in the UK, with the average student paying out close to $10,000 for the opportunity to teach street children, rescue sea turtles, dig wells and the like. Brodie cautions that many of these projects have been designed to satisfy the demands of students rather than the needs of locals. As she told the Guardian:

“Young people want to make a difference, but they would be better off traveling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet.”

The desire for authenticity — whatever that means

Going hand in hand with this compulsion for doing good — as long as you can cram it into a half-year stint, preferably funded by your parents — is the desire to prove to others that you won’t settle for anything less than an “authentic” cultural experience.

During my own gap year, I spent some time walking around Beijing with a friend of mine, Josh, who was obsessed with the idea of “authenticity” — the acid test for which was the absence of any sort of commercial element aimed specifically at tourists.

Josh would thoroughly inspect any restaurant we went to before deciding whether it was “touristy” or the “real China.” It almost got to the point where if there was a suspect old Chinese man hunched up in the corner looking as though he needed serious medical attention, Josh would yelp excitedly and sit down, commenting on how he could taste the poverty in the noodle soup.

One particularly vivid memory from the experience was walking through the hutongs, the ancient lanes that revolve around the Forbidden City in a maze of houses and courtyards. They are a popular tourist attraction, and though they house half the city’s population of 18 million, many of them are being demolished to make room for more modern buildings.

Josh, at the behest of his trusty guidebook, was insistent that we take the chance to see them before they were modernized beyond recognition. While we walked, we were followed by an angry rickshaw driver who wanted to take us on a tour. We refused to pay for his services — not because the price he was asking was too high but because to accept his offer would be tantamount to admitting that we’d settle for a staged and commercial version of the “hutong experience.” And that would undermine our whole reason for being there.

Just a little too late, I realized the gross insensitivity of what we were doing. We were walking through people’s back gardens and peering over their fences on the pretext of digging beneath the veneer of their culture. Ultimately, however, what we were getting was exotic, and cheap, entertainment. And if that was the case, we might as well have allowed the locals to set the terms of their own commodification.

Unintended consequences

If I had any sort of epiphany myself from traveling, it was this: the search for the “authentic” experience outside of Western boundaries is itself the reason for these cultures’ destruction.

The way I see it, it happens in three phases:

  1. Travelers arrive at an undeveloped exotic location.
  2. They report on the experience as having been so “authentic” that other people follow them.
  3. Soon enough the locals catch on to this, and offer their services in delivering what people want — mountain treks, temple tours, and so on until eventually, it becomes an overly commercialized “tourist spot” and the landscape becomes dominated by souvenirs, maps, and information points.

And just about then, the original travelers, exasperated with all those damn tourists, leave in search of more fertile ground and the cycle repeats itself.

For years in this way, the counter-cultural traveler has served as the main shock trooper of mass tourism.

While there is nothing wrong with spreading a little Western wealth through tourism to places that need it — although admittedly the process of development does have its drawbacks — the idea that anti-materialist tourists are superior to the other kinds — well, that’s just pretentious, isn’t it?

Readers, any responses to Lawrence Hunt’s thoughts on gap years, voluntourism and the quest for the “authentic” travel experience?

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, providing a humorous slant on the aid work profession.

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Img: Lawrence Hunt playing the tourist in Beijing’s Forbidden City during his gap year (August 2008).

9 responses to “Look at little me on my gap year! I’m so superior to other kinds of tourists!

  1. Spinster November 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    “It almost got to the point where if there was a suspect old Chinese man hunched up in the corner looking as though he needed serious medical attention, Josh would yelp excitedly and sit down, commenting on how he could taste the poverty in the noodle soup.”

    Ugh. HELL no. 😐

    Really good post. Makes a lot of sense. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

  2. Expat Mum November 14, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Very good post, although not new. I went through all this in the 1980’s (remember the birth of the Sloane Rangers and the Hooray Henrys?). The gap year is nothing new although it probably was a little more authentic back then in that you were completely on your own – unless, of course, you knew a Maharajah or three as some of my peers did. Even so, they had to take trains in India etc. The shit-holes I stayed in on various unknown Greek islands (not a Gap year) are now major resorts.
    One thing I have realised though (in my ancient wisdom) – You say that these privileged kids were “insulated by the reality of these places by wads of their parents’ money”; – one could say the same about chavs who go to Continental resorts, never leave the confines of the hotel grounds and insist on egg and chips at every meal. Equally insufferable, yet each the product of their upbringing.

    • ML Awanohara November 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      @Expat Mum
      Yes, but what I think is new is that kids these days — on both sides of the Atlantic — see a voluntourism stint as a mandatory rite of passage. My sister, who has an 18-year-old daughter, has been attending quite a few college orientation meetings, and she told me that one representative, from a fairly big-name American university, essentially said that if he reads one more college essay from a kid claiming to have saved the world because of spending a week volunteering in Cambodia, he’ll chunder!!!

      • awindram November 15, 2011 at 8:13 pm

        I agree with ML. I don’t think “chavs” (horrible word, btw) in Continental resorts are either a) claiming to be in some small way bettering the world, or b) maturing as a person from eating their egg and chips. Both were justifications that were repeatedly expressed to me by gap year students when I was at Uni.

        I remember a particularly obnoxious girl who I found myself next to at a formal hall informing me that she had been able to mature more than I had on account of seeing poverty at close quarters on her gap year after finishing at Rodean and before coming down to Cambridge. In my three years at Uni this was the moment I had the biggest chip on my shoulder.

  3. ML Awanohara November 15, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I’m really glad you pointed out this “gap yah” video, which I’d never have otherwise known about — and also insisted that I watch it (how did you know that I usually skip the videos?). After I finished looking at the clip, I entered into an alternative reality that took several hours to wear off, during the course of which I came across a blog post by a young Aussie. She raised money to go to Ethiopia to be a full-time volunteer at an Ethiopian girls school, teaching English, playing games, etc. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I got to this part:

    Since I arrived, I’ve been trying to find ways to use the funds I raised before I arrived here. I would love to use it to help the OPRIFS girls, but to be honest, they have everything. They have toys, clothes, shoes, backpacks, food etc. It’s fantastic for OPRIFS and the girls they help — but for people like me who want to come and want to feel useful, it’s not so fantastic. I spoke to someone about this, and they are going to try to help me find people to help.

    I had to ask myself: is she doing a spoof or is she serious? I think the latter, in which case, I congratulate her for her honesty!

  4. Lawrence November 17, 2011 at 11:10 am

    So does anyone think we’re perhaps being too hard on ‘voluntourism’ here? The word has a pejorative meaning because it was coined by the people who spotted this whole trend going overboard and wanted to poke a finger of fun at them, right? But does that leave any room for the type of volunteering in other countries that actually makes a difference? Some of it must surely. There are plenty of charities that run orphanages and rebuilding programmes etc mainly with the labour of volunteers, and you meet lots of people whose stories of helping out abroad are actually quite striking (though I can’t think of an example to hand right now). So do we need to draw a distinction rather than denigrating all of it?
    I guess we’re only trying to mock those who find artificial ways to feel superior to the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been interviewing this week for a copywriting position with an ad agency that works primarily with charities like Oxfam and Farm Aid. I really hope if I get the job that I won’t start acting like a Gap Yah about my Gap Carreah. I could lose a lot of friends that way.

    • ML Awanohara November 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm

      Are we giving the volun-tourists too hard a time? Heck, no! I’ve been asking that question over and over this month of our various Random Nomads, all of whom have been involved in international aid projects, and their consensus seems to be that becoming a volun-tourist is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly. Our latest, Jennifer Lentfer, who writes a popular blog on international aid entitled How Matters, showed the most tolerance. She even went so far as to recommend an organization that’s doing great work in this area: PEPY Tours in Cambodia. So maybe that’s the answer — getting insiders (ie, people who are already in the field) to vet these projects? Except they may not have the time…

      But even if the voluntourist industry were under tighter surveillance, I would still have my reservations. Particularly when you’re young, what’s wrong with just backpacking your way around the world? Do you necessarily have to save it along the way? Broadening your horizons can be done in different ways…

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