From the moment our workshop began in Hamden I knew that my abroad experience would be vastly different from the typical abroad student simply due to the new mindset I was begin to develop towards rites of passage and cultural differences. Unlike the typical study abroad student I was already beginning to focus on the culture of my host country rather than future ‘mass-tourist like’ experiences. In chapter 1 of Becoming World Wise, Slimbach asks, “what happens if you are the kind of person, culture, or nation that doesn’t “flatten” so easily? Instead of being swift and agile you move slowly. Instead of networking electronically across boarders you live your life largely unplugged” (Slimbach, 16). This question is where I believe many study-abroad students go wrong. They may physically move to a new place but once unfamiliarity becomes too much, many revert back to their old status through social media. As a result they may be living in a new physical place but mentally remain home in their old status because they are unable to maintain an ‘unplugged’ status. This is the root of the stereotype study abroad students acquire that mentions their inability to learn a new culture.
Slimbach’s question prompted me to consider why certain individuals study abroad if not for the cultural immersion. After careful reflection on my own experiences thus far I believe that social media has much to do with it. Slimbach’s question refers to slowing down and appreciating in all aspects of a new place, creating a cultural experience that is vast and unique rather than flat. He encourages the traveler to explore in a way that respects but also dissects what a specific culture is at its core. This has been my intent throughout my experience in lectures and travel. However, I have noticed others students are unable to travel in this way and I believe that social media is to blame for this. Social media tends to get in the way simply because a ‘do it for the picture’ philosophy emerges. As a result a study abroad student may take several pictures that give the illusion of cultural immersion but in reality only scratch the surface in terms of cultural experiences.
Slimbach mentions the millennial traveler in chapter 1 by saying “many ‘new generation’ travelers are looking for something beyond the pursuit of peak experiences and the satisfaction of personal needs. More and more are venturing off the beaten path of study-abroad-as-usual…”(Slimbach, 26). Although I agree with Slimbach that many millennial’s are venturing of the beaten path, many do not share the same cultural intentions for their venture as Slimbach describes.
This idea is best describes by my experience in a small local village in Fiji a few weeks ago. The intent of the day was to experience the culture of an authentic Fijian village. There were about 30 of us total and we were definitely venturing off the beaten path. This village was small and difficult to get to, but the locals worked together to harvest food, care for live stalk, and educate their children. From a rite of passage and cultural immersion standpoint this was one of the best ways to learn about the culture. Walking through the small huts and structures there was a sense of appreciation for how these people live; it was simple, cooperative, and supportive. However, when we reached the school something changed- it was no longer about the culture but rather capturing a moment for a social media post. I sat back and watched as many students took out their phones and lined up to wait to take a picture with the younger children. They became the equivalent to a character at a Disney theme park. Although we were venturing of the beaten path, was there really a pure and proper intent to experience the cultural if it was only about appearing to be cultural through a picture? Has study abroad become more about the photo than the actual experience? In order to change this stereotype and manner of travel a traveler must learn when a camera is appropriate. The village experience should not have been about a photo with children. It should have been about the culture and local way of life. It is easy to get distracted by a camera, but if we are constantly looking at the world through a lens is that any better than looking at it through a computer at home? Tim Cahill said that “a journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” I would add to that statement and say that a journey is best measured in friends, rather than photos.”