The statistic’s a few years old, but it stated that only 20% of Americans have a passport. I briefly touched on this statistic in my post about xenophobia. In the introduction of the 2009 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, editor and writer Simon Winchester bemoans the fact that Americans aren’t taught geography and don’t develop their sense of wanderlust the way the British do. Well then. Being someone chronically afflicted by a life ruining case of wanderlust, and having been born in the USA, I would like to examine this.
To be fair, my parents never traveled. My mom drove across the border into Mexico once in 1968 or something. And my dad was stationed in Okinawa during his air force career. Neither of them had a passport until last year when I persuaded my father to visit me in Korea. It was his first time out of the US since that same year my mother had a one day adventure south of the border. I had to wait until I was in university to have the opportunity to study abroad and get out on my own.
I really respect Winchester (and his book about Korea) but I would say the most travel-centric people I’ve met have been Australians. So comparing the US to both Brits and Australians I suppose that to me a few reasons for this travel gap become clear. Here are my (probably biased) observations.
Vacation Time: Where a thriving “gap year” culture is alive and well in Australia and not uncommon in the UK, it’s unheard of in the US. For the most part, it is expected that you finish high school and immediately launch into college, a job, or work training. And after finishing college you have to immediately leap into any job that will take you because you are smothering in debt and living back with your parents. Although 50 years ago, it was the opposite problem. You immediately leapt into a job because you usually had good offers right away.
Once you start that job, you can expect to have about two weeks of vacation within the whole year. Not usually together. Since you’re paying off crushing debt and distance dictates that an international flight will be expensive, that puts a crimp in traveling for the first few years of your work life.
Education: This refers to both formal education and more to cultural education. The American public school curriculum isn’t… the worst in the world. Nor is it the best. It is lacking in many areas, one of them being foreign languages, and world history and culture.
The only thing about Asia we learned in my high school history was about samurais, the Great Wall of China, and the Japanese involvement in World War Two. World history is skimmed over in 6 months of middle school social studies. And it’s quite Western centric. As are literature and art classes.
Now, culturally, what we are taught is that America is the newest, shiniest world power who has the best and most innovative and civilized government and society. We should appreciate that instead of going to scary places where people might not even have paved roads or indoor toilets for all we know. If you’ve never been anywhere else, it’s easy to believe that everything you grew up with is the best there is. And it’s easy to be afraid of something different if you haven’t had a broad educational base that discusses different cultures. It’s true that America is a melting pot, but gradual assimilation is a big part of that– that’s why it’s more like a fondue than a stew. But if you didn’t grow up in a big city like the majority of Americans, your exposure might be one recently immigrated family and some second or third generation European or Asian Americans that keeps some traditional customs alive at holidays or family gatherings. It’s pretty bland out in the suburbs.
Also, it’s not our priority to spend our money traveling. It’s our priority to live the American dream. As soon as you get that crushing college debt paid off, you better get married, start a family, and buy your own home so that you are stuck under a mortgage for the next thirty years. When you finally are around 60 and your children have left home and that mortgage is getting paid off, then you’re supposed to do your traveling. Of course, you are generally expected to do it in a sanitized, controlled way like on a cruise or at a resort.
Geography: Let’s get real guys. America is huge. And yes, Australia is big too, but pretty much everything is along the edges. the center is a big desert where they once did some nuclear testing and no one realized it until years later (well except the native people who started dying of the radiation poisoning). It’s that empty. So if you want to see anything else, you’ve got to go. And you typically have the time to do it. And a really decent minimum wage to spend on it.
There are many different landscapes within America. Some incredible forests. Flat and fertile plains. Huge mountain ranges. Miles of coastline. And of course, some impressive cities. So, when calculating expense and crippling fear of the unknown, many people would rather explore in their own backyard. The Great America Road Trip is highly romanticized in film and literature, and I would like to take it some day. There is a lot to see.
Besides that, if you live in the midwest of the USA, even to get to our landlocked neighbors, you are looking at about 20 hours of driving to get to another country. The driving time from Kansas City to Calgary is approximately 24 hours for example. And the railroads, though once great in the US have completely deteriorated. Once highways became dominant for shipping, rail travel tapered off. Taking a train from Boston to LA would be great way to see the country and less stressful than having to drive the whole way. Quicker too since the driver wouldn’t have to take breaks to sleep. But it’s pretty impossible. You have to make that sort of journey on a series of uncomfortable long distance buses that can be quite expensive.
It’s not like the European rail system where you can navigate the entire continent fairly easily in a matter of days. Nor is it like the bullet trains of Asia where a 6-10 hour drive between cities is cut to a 3-4 hour train ride.
So I guess to sum up, it’s not entirely surprising that Americans are less noted for their wanderlust than the citizens of some other countries. There are many reasons why. However, I’ve been meeting a lot of Americans abroad in these past few years of wandering. As the economy and future seems less stable, more young Americans want to do their traveling now. Not waiting until they need a wheel chair to do it. I sincerely encourage any nervous Americans to take the plunge. But be aware that you might just find yourself infecedt with incurable wanderlust afterwards.