When I was a teenager, I had never left the country. My parents had never left the country either. I had no sense of the world beyond the Eastern Time Zone in America, and I had no reason to understand why it was useful to me to extend beyond my boundaries. I dropped French after tenth grade, both because it was hard and because I didn’t know where I would ever use it. My favorite class was AP US History, because I knew America and, more importantly, I knew how much I didn’t know about America. I was consumed with American culture and dove right in.
Yet I also knew that when I went to college I would go abroad. It was never something I questioned – it was a great opportunity that I knew I needed to take advantage of. If only to differentiate me from my parents. It would signal my rising class status by having the cultural capital of a trip overseas. I also knew that I didn’t want to go where everyone else was going – probably only because I’ve always been something of an independent-minded contrarian. Europe was explicitly OFF the table since it felt much more accessible than the rest of the world to a white New Englander like me.
I celebrated my 20th birthday at the start of my semester abroad in Brazil. I picked Brazil because one of my good friends in college was from Brazil and because I am obsessed with music and few countries have as rich a musical tradition as Brazil does. The four months I spent there changed my life (as it now seems so painfully obvious it would). I got bit by the bug. Two years later, I finagled a way to get paid to go to Italy. Eventually, I worked my way up to an International Recruiter in college admissions and got to see so many places I never imagined I would go (including the Eastern Seaboard of China).
The line that resonated with me most in the Iyer article was the conception of the “passport as a diploma.” Traveling has enabled me to more about the world and myself than I ever could have hoped in a classroom. Books, music and world issues have taken on new resonance after seeing actual other countries and forming friendships with the people there. As Iyer alludes to later in the article, it has even helped me understand my own native land better than I thought it would.
Last year, I got to bring my mother on a trip to Cuba. It was her first time leaving the country, and now she has the bug. She’s going to be dragging my dad to Ireland this fall. Given his Irish roots, I can only imagine the education in store for him thanks to his passport.