Meet Anita, the second of our four new Storytellers this semester! In her spotlight post, she tackles the issue of travel and its links to globalization, languages, and power.
Despite my general understanding of the American attitudes I’d grown up around, wonderfully Southern and reverent of tradition, I still had faith in our supposed national exceptionalism–the kind of zeal that broke barriers with raging ferocity. In short, I applied that understanding to a desperate belief that Americans thought it normal to want to see the world as badly as I did. Possessing a passport for travel was such a no-brainer for me that I flippantly applied it to everyone else.
In 2015, the Bureau of Consular Affairs increased the number of standard passport pages in American passports from an embarrassing 28 pages to 52, free of charge, but only at the request of frequent travelers. Although my own international travels began 5 years ago due to the luck and financial stability of my parents, I didn’t get the opportunity to compare and contrast passports of other nationals until recently. In Seoul, I sat across an izakaya table with friends I’d made, hailing from Germany, Poland, Japan, and California, and I saw a staggering amount of stamps parading across a number of pages. As we exchanged travel stories well into the humid night, I realized just how inadequate Americans are in the ways of globe-trotting.
According to a study done by State Department, only about 30% of the American population owns a passport (this excludes passport cards that only allow sea and overland entry from Canada, Mexico, and certain Caribbean countries). This says more than I’d like it to. The heart of the matter is that people who are willing and able to travel simply aren’t doing so. I could run an entire discourse on poverty tied to racial injustices, income inequality, rural isolation, and overall inaccessibility to airlines, but I want to narrow my focus down to the understanding of my reality- which, due to sheer luck of the draw, doesn’t include many of those issues.
As a result of the lack of jet-setting, interest in other languages and cultures appears to have either socially plateaued in most people or dwindled in others. This affects the way we interact with our increasingly globalized world and learn the languages that link it. The situation where Americans are not as interested in learning about the languages and cultures of the rest of the world is not so fatalistic as to predict the fall of the Great United States, but it is undeniable that the world is in fact changing. Migration is at an all-new high for much of Europe and the U.S., and interracial marriages are no longer unusual, but the new norm. Interest in language and culture is the definition of ‘hands-on’ in this century and for many more to come. As a result and call to attention of this phenomenon, travel cannot only be about the going, but also the doing. The most demanding requirement of this engagement is the interactions by which we do it, through language.
When I interact with students from all academic years and nationalities, I often hear about the practicality or investment of learning high-demand languages such as Chinese or Arabic. Like any trend in the fashion industry, the fascination with languages rises and falls, in tandem with with their anticipated death date or projected year of world-domination. In addition to that, I often hear just as much the question of why I choose to study Japanese in a world of power and standoffs. As if the value of a language ergo culture is inextricably tied to its economy or international relevance-I understand many argue in favor of this- that there is a pervading belief in the classification of ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ languages.
Along my journey I’ve even come to question it myself; what is a young, African, human rights sympathizer and student doing learning Japanese? But the answer I came to every time was simple: she’s doing what she wants. Cultural immersion via language is not something calculable or quantifiable by stocks or United Nations membership. My entry into the ever-changing and often crippling fear-inducing world is embedded by my desire to embrace any and all I can. Call it foolhardy, but it’s the direction I can hope to guide those I encounter to.
International travel is a luxury that’s unfortunately unfeasible for many Americans. What shapes our position and identity in the world is not really the physical act of traveling; it is the willingness to embrace and learn from other cultures through mediums like travel and language learning. The way we view the world, culture, and subsequently ourselves is securely fastened to the interactions we share and the words that define them.
Anita is a junior at Georgetown University majoring in Justice and Peace Studies with a concentration on Gender and Violence. An active participant in humanitarian organizations at Georgetown, she is also an avid learner of the Japanese language.