It’s easier to travel if you’re Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof has a new column, one in which he proclaims everyone should study abroad or take a gap year and travel the world:

All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.

To be clear, I think seeing other parts of the world is a great way to broaden horizons, and I’d love to live in a world where everyone who wanted to do so was able to travel freely. Coming from privileged circumstances, I’ve certainly been guilty of viewing travel as a panacea that everyone should embrace. But Kristof is so tone-deaf throughout this column that I have to wonder if he’s stepped beyond his own individual experience to think about what’s truly required to make major international travel possible.

He cites his own experience bumming around the world as an example of the type of eye-opening revelation travel brings, and it definitely sounds like fun. It’s great if you can hitchhike, sleep in strangers’ barns, stay in group hostel rooms and never worry about anything besides petty theft, but let’s not forget that feeling safe in foreign circumstances isn’t a universal luxury. Queer people risk harassment, assault and arrest in many countries, and some might rather stay home than hide who they are so they can feel safe abroad. Many (probably most or all) countries have complex and completely different social systems of race and racism which people of color have to figure out how to navigate.

It’s not as if these issues are absent in the U.S., but I’ve found that knowing how to be female and queer in the U.S. doesn’t mean I know how to be either in another country. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is one that requires extra energy to adapt to. I’ve been sexually harassed, followed and occasionally groped by strange men dozens of times while abroad. When I went to Ecuador, we were warned that especially in coastal cities, men would pose as taxi drivers and take single women who got into their cabs to a house where they would be held and gang-raped.

It’s true that reports of violence often get overblown in travel advisories, that I risk many of the same things by staying home, and, I suspect, that I’m far less likely to be a victim of rape and assault traveling to Ecuador than a woman born there. Still, even if the material risks I face don’t change abroad, my sense of security does, because being in another country means you often won’t have the language or cultural skills required to navigate the medical or legal systems, should you need to. Nick Kristof, I suspect, has never done the math of abortion being illegal and rape rates being higher in his intended destination and decided to stock his first aid kit with a dose or two of emergency contraception, just in case. I’m just privileged enough that these sorts of realizations are more likely to be instructive for me than truly prohibitive–two years later and I still pay attention to Ecuador’s LGBT rights movement and a few local organizations working to legalize abortion. But let’s at least acknowledge that a lot of people have valid reasons to feel unsafe in many corners of the globe and shouldn’t be faulted for choosing to spend their time doing something else. (Let’s also not forget that issues of access to medical and legal services are a serious issue for many immigrants to the U.S.)

Even for those who do want to travel, there are often other barriers, and I’m not just talking the financial ones (something he glosses over, but seriously, even if you get free room and board via volunteering, a plane ticket/passport/visa/vaccine course isn’t cheap, especially if being abroad means losing income from a work-study job.) If you’re HIV positive or don’t have a clean criminal record, it’s impossible to get a visa to many countries. If you’re undocumented, leaving the U.S. at all means, in all liklihood, never being able to come home. If you have chronic health issues—mental or physical—and depend on regular access to reliable medical care or support networks to get through school (something I certainly did during my last semester), uprooting your life to go somewhere you can barely speak the language may be a challenge too many.

And his thesis, which is essentially, that travel leads to global awareness, multiculturalism and multilingualism? That’s true on some level, and moreso for kids who grew up in privileged circumstances or without a lot of exposure to the world, but it’s not a requirement to be multicultural. What about the child of immigrant parents who grew up speaking Spanish, Vietnamese or Tagalog at home, who grew up more bilingual than a semester in Bolivia could ever make me?* What about the student from such a vastly different America (whether it’s rural Appalachia or inner-city Los Angeles) that the campus of Harvard or Whitman or the University of Michigan might as well be a different world?

It’s easy to say these people aren’t who he’s talking about, but the group excluded by the rhetoric of travel-as-universal-good is so large that Kristof comes off seeming like he views his own particular set of life circumstances as universal. I want a world where everyone’s able to move freely and visit other countries if they choose, but I think we’d get there with more people on board by having a realistic conversation about access and borders.

*Edit: A reader pointed out to me that Nick Kristof himself is the child of a Yugoslavian immigrant and suggested I was making assumptions about his background. That’s entirely fair, and I’ve changed the wording of this paragraph a bit in response. It’s far beyond my ability (and the point) to deduce how his experiences at the child of immigrants influenced his views on travel, but I stand by my point that its proponents should be thinking about ways to improve accessibility, not just touting its benefits.