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.
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:
- Travelers arrive at an undeveloped exotic location.
- They report on the experience as having been so “authentic” that other people follow them.
- 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.
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!
Img: Lawrence Hunt playing the tourist in Beijing’s Forbidden City during his gap year (August 2008).