Month: October 2015

There’s no such thing as a shameless study abroad blog

There was a time when we believed that a young white man with a journal and a healthy sense of adventure could change the world. Dissatisfied with the Western world, the intrepid explorer journeys into the World of the Other to find an existence unfettered by civilization. He is Kipling in India, Thoreau at the Pond, Kerouac on the Road. He is an ambassador in wild lands, giving to the native populations his god, his goods, and his goodwill. In exchange, he cultivates the finest seeds of his spirituality. He finds himself. When he returns, he shares his cultivated wisdom within society, and the seeds of enlightenment begin to sprout. 

These stories are at the core of much of Western ideology, with the obvious example of Manifest Destiny. But somewhere along the way we’ve given up on the travel writer. Maybe the reverberating aftershocks of colonialism have dispelled our exotic ambitions once and for all. Or, more likely, the travel writer is just another victim of millennial capitalism, swallowed up, like other print journalists, by the demands to produce new content in a world of seemingly limitless information.

But, he hasn’t completely gone away. His legacy lives on in the study abroad blogger, usually a college educated twenty-something with enough capital to travel to foreign lands “just for the experience.” Like their forefather, the blogger (I refuse to use the portmanteau “study a-blogger”) is motivated by a desire to find the real in life. The study abroad blog, however, is painstakingly effortless, a breezy take-it-or-leave-it rumination on the excitement and mundanity of traveling. Ever-careful to avoid producing content that can be critically evaluated, the blogger hides their cultural prejudices behind their stated disdain for tourism and self-deprecating remarks about their unfamiliarity with the culture. The savvier among them will remember their discredited forefathers and attempt to articulate their truths as a plural with a lowercase t, and it will be not for you but for them alone that they write their blog. Or so they claim, in a witty quip about how “only mom and dad are reading this!” So when they do inevitably post their blog updates, they do so with the ironically self-aware “shameless self-promotion” posts, a tongue-in-cheek admission of guilt.

Make no mistake: there’s no such thing as a shameless study abroad blog. Irony is a comfortable way to express our thoughts behind the safety of ambiguity, but it is a thin veneer for the shame we feel when we realize that our ability to travel freely into a foreign country, document our travels, and couch the whole thing as a journey of self-discovery, is the result of a colonial tradition.

I am really uncomfortable writing publicly in the first person because I don’t want to accept my part in a tradition that has misrepresented people and cultures for hundreds of years, forming the cultural basis for oppression. But if this blog is to have any social value whatsoever, I have to accept my role in this cycle. From this point on, this blog is about me. I am going to spend the next nine months in Africa. I am shamelessly/shamefully blogging about my experiences.

The difference, I hope, is that my blog posts can be personal while still being socially conscious. My implicit responsibility, as a study abroad blogger (not to mention anthropology researcher) is to confront the post-colonial legacy whenever I see it, in myself and others. Shameful as it may be, I’d rather take on my privilege as a white traveller than perpetuate cultural silences by producing another socially unconscious study abroad blog.