There was a fight Mr. Kim and I had a while back—I don’t even remember what started it—but as in many fights between couples, some of our deeply-held jealousies and insecurities rose to the surface.
On my side, I’m jealous that Mr. Kim has a real focus to his life, and that through his hard work, smart choices, natural gifts, and family support, he’s on the cusp of launching into the somewhat prestigious career he’s dreamed of for more than a decade, while I (in my mind, at low points) wasted my twenties and my potential by traveling here and there, floating on the wind, grabbing only at fruit easily within my reach.
At some point in the argument, I probably mentioned that I followed him to our current location for the sake of his career.
“But you got to travel everywhere as much as you wanted,” Mr. Kim said, revealing a jealousy and insecurity I didn’t know he had.
“Well, that’s just because I didn’t make other choices. You’re benefiting now from the choices you made, and I’m just doing something random,” I replied, thinking of my own issues.
“Well I didn’t have those choices because I’m not American. If I wasn’t in school I had to go the army, and I can’t just go teach English anywhere like you,” he shot back.
At the time, I was pretty dismissive because—well, because I was in the middle of a (rare) fight with my spouse! You have to excuse me there, I am very competitive. But since, I’ve thought about how right Mr. Kim was in the essence of what he was saying.
I was thinking about this again last weekend because I was reading this New York Times article by Ronda Kaysen about Americans who are “flee[ing] Trump’s America” by becoming global “nomads,” traveling or staying in countries with a low cost of living while earning money online or relying on savings. Now, I relish a good hate read as much as the next person, but usually I just laugh to myself and hate silently, or maybe share it on Facebook.
This time, I got kind of mad.
The Americans profiled in this article say they have gotten tired of how terrible (they say) America has become under Trump, or just of consumerism and expenses and how terrible (they say) America has gotten in general.
It’s so sticky with privilege I can’t pick my feet up off the floor.
For example. One “middle-class” woman left the US in mid-2016 with her daughters to escape the US’s “stifling, consumerist culture” and decided not to return after Trump’s election. She spoke to the journalist from Colombia, where she’s decided she can live on $1700 a month (including a nanny), which she’ll earn after she “figur[es] out how to start a business selling products through Amazon.”
Putting aside the irony of financing her avoidance of a consumerist culture by selling products through Amazon: This woman went to Colombia to escape the horrors of being a white woman in America. That’s right. To a country where many people were literally living in a state of civil war until recently. Yet those people weren’t able to step on a plane and fly to the US to escape rather more dire conditions than middle-class white American womanhood because Colombians need a visa to enter the US, not to mention the average “middle-class” Colombian would probably be unable to afford such a trip, as Colombia’s GDP is about one-fourth of the US‘s when adjusted for purchasing power parity (and even lower without that adjustment, I believe).
The article then goes on to quote “nomad” Paul Kortman, who “estimates that a family could travel indefinitely on $60,000 a year.” Paul even tells us how to earn this $60,000 a year:
‘All you need to do is have a laptop and be an intelligent person,’ Mr. Kortman said. ‘You don’t need a specific skill set.’
Oh really? That’s very honest of you, Paul. You don’t need to have any special skills. Just have a laptop, be an intelligent person and…Probably it helps if you’re from the United States or another wealthy country, speak English well, and have the balls to sell self-published e-books for $27 each. (I’m not against self-publishing or ebooks, but this seems above market rate to me, especially since there was no ability to preview it and no clear source of remotely unbaised reviews.) It probably also helps if you’re white, upper middle or at least middle-class, and check off several other boxes as well.
I could go on…about how people who are forced from their homes because of real problems—who are usually called “refugees” rather than “nomads”—generally don’t have the ability to return just because they’ve tired of traveling, as one of these families plan to do. At the blasé way it’s noted in the article that a “mix of inheritance, a severance package and the income from renting out their four-bedroom house with a pool” is enabling another family to travel around the world for 11 months, when many Americans have little or no savings, not to mention the rest of these advantages. Etc.
I’m not against traveling or living abroad. I’m not even against these kinds of families traveling, believe it or not. But I am against the unquestioned American privilege exhibited in the way this article describes these families (and in much other travel writing): We Americans can go anywhere, earn our American money, live in bounty among relative poverty, and oh—if someone wants to talk about US politics, just “put the kibosh on it” because “we’re here to be students, and not talk about horrible things,” as one mother in a profiled family put it.
It’s like, I’m American. Don’t ruin my fun.
That’s not cool, and it’s vital when writing about travel that we acknowledge privilege—especially for a serious media outlet like The New York Times.
True, Mr. Kim and I are partly able to travel because it’s something we prioritize: We choose not to have a car, we rarely buy clothes, we take advantage of opportunities like conferences and business trips. That plays a role, obviously.
But only a small role, because all those things are secondary to our privilege: My American and even his South Korean privilege, which come with earnings in strong currencies and passports that get us in almost anywhere. The privileges that come with being a married heterosexual couple. My privilege as a white American; his privilege as a man; other privileges. And things that maybe aren’t exactly privileges in the sociological sense but that in some cases relate to the privileges above: Family backgrounds that have made it relatively easy for us to get good educations and jobs; generally good health and access to healthcare; good “credit hygiene” that enables us to earn points for travel; fluency in English.
On top of this, the relative wealth and access I enjoy as a middle-50-percenter American clearly cause and/or perpetuate a lot of the circumstances that keep many other people worldwide from having global travel (and more basic) opportunities, and on the flip side, those circumstances enable some of my wealth and access.
So anyway, fellow Americans. Go see the world. Get out of the rat race or whatever. Follow your dreams. Etc. Write about it.
But do it all, at the very least, with awareness and acknowledgment of your American privilege.
PS I’m definitely not the first person to write about this! Here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here are other writers’/travel bloggers’ thoughts on travel and American/”First World” privilege – these appeared in just the first page of my Google search for international travel and American privilege.