For Sale: The World, Custom-Made

As a “global citizen,” are there any limits to where we can go and what we can do?

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Editor-in-Chief: Alicia Abbaspour ’18

In the time it takes me to make a cup of coffee in the morning, I’ve already strolled down the streets of France at midnight, spoken with some refugees in Jordan, watched the sunset off the coast of Australia, hiked through Macchu Pichu in Peru and eaten lunch with some school girls in Indonesia. Time and space were limitations of the twentieth century – today, I can tour the globe in under three minutes, as I scroll through my social media feeds and absorb bits of information flooding through the 24-hour news cycle.
What was once unknowable, ungraspable, exotic, distant and far-off is now easily attainable – a sampling of the world beyond the U.S. can be packaged up and ready to ship with free two-day delivery, albeit with just a simple $80 membership fee. Want to live like a European? Spend a semester in Paris. Want to be adventurous? Go on a safari tour through Tanzania. Want to be charitable? Spend your spring break building houses in Bali. Want to be both? Now, you can be a “voluntourist” – a vast amount of programs exists to allow young people like you to embody Mother Teresa for several hours a day and then to relax from all that hard work. You can take a couple pictures with the village children whose names you do not learn or watch a cultural dance, specifically choreographed to fulfill your preconceived notions.

When the world comes knocking at your door, who can blame you for not saying no? Or, rather, who can blame you – because you cannot say no. Because the world is too loud and permeable, and it comes barging in anyway.

You could ignore the war in Syria, the increasingly expansion-like policies of Russia, the economy in China, the Zika virus in Latin America and other parts of the world for only so long until these topics continue to pop up on every outlet you use to connect with everyone else. We are constantly plugged in – to our phones, to our friends and family, to our nation and its discourse, and unavoidably then, yes, to the world.

Now, more than ever before, accessibility is abundant – but accessibility to what exactly?

More than 200,000 Americans study abroad every year. A 2008 study by Tourism Research and Marketing, an international consultancy group, found that about 1.6 million people volunteer internationally, with the United States sending more volunteers than any other country. Hundreds of programs have been constructed to secure students educational placements or internship opportunities overseas. A quick Google search will supply you with numerous sources for international internships, from idealist.org, to gooverseas.com, to goabroad.com, to transitionsabroad.com to programs with CISAbroad, UNICEF, and CIEE. The NGO sector and the increasingly loud and powerful human rights movement continue to depend on young American liberals, wide-eyed with idealized perspectives to carry on their momentum.

What does it mean when the land of opportunity has seemingly expanded past the coasts of the U.S.?

Just because we can book a flight to Indonesia or spend a semester in Morocco, can we also fix the human trafficking problem in Thailand or teach students in failing school structures in Ghana?

More accessibility to travel and information does not necessarily mean more understanding about the world. We construct our image of the globe through a dizzying kaleidoscope of vacations photos from our friends, news footage, readings in our classes, and testimonies by immigrants. At times it feels as though the world must be so simple and so knowable now – or if it isn’t, then it can be! Through a couple of months overseas or a quick service trip. Maybe a cruise around the Caribbean, or a week at a European resort.

You might learn how to say hello in Arabic (marhaba) or that it’s considered impolite to reach out with your left hand in Ghanaian culture. You might learn that Iranians greet each others with three kisses, and in Italy, with only two. But when you start an NGO in Nigeria to help street children, how would you know the societal reasons for their marginalization stem from beliefs in witchcraft? Did you think about how providing contraception to Brazilian women might not help anything, if they perceive such resources as sacrilegious?

What can we do when it feels like we know so much, but reality tells us we know so little? How do we engage in a world we are told is ours for exploring and understanding? How do we participate in the human rights and nonprofit craze – genuinely, and not cause more harm, than good? How do we shake off the histories of colonialism and imperialism that continue to haunt any American abroad? Those are not rhetorical questions, but I don’t have any answers.

To be honest, I volunteered for a month in Ghana with a local nonprofit last summer. I’m planning a semester abroad for my junior year. I’ve considered joining the PeaceCorps once I graduate – and time and time again, I’ve had to step back and evaluate what exactly I’m engaging in. Are my decisions helpful, in the way I want them to be? Are they harmful, in ways I never could have imagined? Am I being understanding, before assuming? Am I exploiting my passport and my privilege, instead of considering my own, individual, limited role, even as a “global citizen?”

These are questions to meditate on, to keep revisiting as we uncover more about history through our studies, as we continue to live in the interconnected present world and as we look forward into the alluring future. They are questions to consider, as we plan our vacations and book our flights, as we snap pictures of cathedrals and walk past the slums, as we donate to some global foundation and purchase goods shipped out of sweatshops overseas.

Because if there is opportunity, shouldn’t we take it? Shouldn’t we engage, rather than take a safari and peer at others through our binoculars and the safe distance of the cruiser? Shouldn’t we engage, instead of stepping onto shore only to explore the beach and then get right back on the boat before someone speaks to us in a different tongue?

How do we construct our role in a world that seems increasingly close to us, yet remains profoundly unknowable?

By: Alicia Abbaspour ’18

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