Our Role As Global Citizens
What is the definition of the word citizen? Is it merely a word used for legalities and to associate oneself with the passport they hold? Or do we use the word for patriotic reasons, to help build strong feelings towards a flag? Since I have begun my travels abroad, specifically by living in China, I have started to take into consideration, “What exactly does the American flag mean to me?” More importantly, I’ve questioned how my own actions affect people I know back home and how they affect people around the world that I don’t know.
Travel does help one gain a global perspective; travel helps one gain new questions to contemplate. We can learn so much about our own countries by leaving them. The more we explore — the more people we meet and ideas we encounter — the more we can begin to enlighten ourselves and others about what it means to be a global citizen. From putting into question what biases we have about other nations, to realizing how we may be more privileged than we may have thought. Travel helps us learn these things in more jarring ways than any school or news station can.
Learning about another nation by actually visiting it
“Simply knowing about a bias [isn’t] sufficient to overcome it…,” these words from The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis cannot be understated. The process of constantly ridding yourself of confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs, begins with travel. We are fed opinions that we should have of the world through the lens of the press and media, regardless of which nation we are from. Dr. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man who enlightened us in 1964 from the notes of Douglas Cater that the press was the “…fourth branch of the American government.” He writes that “[Douglas] emphasizes the paradox that the press is dedicated to the process of cleansing by publicity, and yet that, in the electronic world of the seamless web of events, most affairs must be kept secret. Top secrecy is translated into public participation and responsibility by the magic flexibility of the controlled news leak.” Nothing replaces the facts provided by real experience. It is now more imperative for us to take matters into our own hands when it comes to our education in global affairs.
Americans think they are already “global” because of the immigrants that come to live in the States. Immigration only provides partial exposure to other cultures; we need to leave the border to understand other people’s perspectives and cultural backgrounds. There are many biases that Americans for example, have about China that come into question once one visits the country or even better — lives there.
One bias or common misconception Americans have about the Chinese is how their work ethic makes them robotic, they work too hard. This bias is reinforced when news outlets show videos that depict the Chinese as a mass of workers who have zero personality and are devoid happiness.
Contrary to actual reality, we are usually shown the extreme cases of what is occurring in another society’s daily affairs. Another country doesn’t make the news unless something dangerous or outrageous occurred, fear does sell views and clicks after all. One of the main reasons why traveling to another country is so vital for one’s education is because there truly is only one way to learn about a nation. The only way to learn about other people is to go and meet them. I personally had this opinion about the Chinese until I started to work with some of them myself. Through my daily interactions with them, I’ve realized that they are people who are just trying to make ends meet. I don’t believe this sentiment towards life and work is that different to what occurs in the lives of my fellow Americans.
When we allow others to provide the opinions that we should have, as opposed to putting that responsibility onto ourselves, we hinder any potential to connect with others around the world. As a person living in the 21st century, we owe it to ourselves to travel to other nations and to meet other people. Only then can we truly begin to see how what we think of them may be groundless and untrue. Another immediate insight we can gain from travel comes when we realize what privileges we have back home.
Travel exposes the privileges we have
I first experienced culture shock in China when I was taking my usual route to work on the subway. As I was watching anime on my phone, I realized that the person sitting next to me was laughing incessantly. After feeling a sense of unease, I became curious to see why this person was laughing only to find out that they were recording me and sharing what seemed to be his jokes about me on a live video feed.
Here in China, anyone who is of African or Afro-Latino decent is seen as such an oddity (because we are) that some of the locals feel that it’s a requirement to snap a picture and document their discovery. If one isn’t prepared for this potential breach in personal space when arriving in China, they can become uncomfortable very fast. And that’s the rub; personal space doesn’t exist in China — it just can’t exist in a country where the group has to be prioritized over the individual. There’s just too many people who live here for there to be a personal bubble. Additionally, as a foreigner traveling we are not granted the same “respect” we would expect when around strangers back home. Often it will seem as though you are being stared at by hundreds of eyes; this is just something one has to adapt to, the same goes with privacy and free speech.
Another privilege that comes from being an American that became immediately apparent when I did my research on China before arriving was how my rights for freedom of speech and privacy are protected. In the United States, one legally is protected from unreasonable searches and seizures under The Fourth Amendment. Irrespective of recent developments with social media companies leveraging our personal data, our country still values personal privacy. We also have freedom of speech in our country, something I haven’t truly appreciated until I left. Unless you’re a government whistle-blower, for the most part, you can pretty much express any opinion (popular or not) and not have to worry about going to jail. Other people who live across the globe aren’t as fortunate to have this right. One can’t provide a critique of their nation’s leaders without expecting some repercussions.
Additionally, the availability of information online becomes highlighted when one leaves their home country. A simple act such as using Google to search for a particular video is stunted when the nation you reside in has the search engine blocked. I never had to worry about the effectiveness of using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) until now, which significantly hinders my use of the internet. Other simple privileges such as access to clean water, healthy food, being able to use a Western-styled toilet or being able to read and understand the mainland-language can help humble you. Tying back to the privilege of understanding the language that is used in the country you live in, I have seen that the education we receive to interface with the world affects our chances of survival tremendously. The realization of all the privileges one used to have can help put into consideration what are the things that we should be grateful for — a healthy absence of what we’ve once had can help us appreciate it more.
Helping others back home & around the world with what we learn
As a traveler, you have the potential to create change in both the community you came from and in all of the communities you visit. Travel has evolved in the past decade thanks to the internet and social media. New knowledge you learn today, whether that be from random events of culture shock, lessons from interacting with the locals, or new experiences you share with fellow travelers can be immediately transmitted back home in real-time. These moments and stories you share back home can also be shared with all of the new people you are connecting with while you’re traveling! The ability to spread information cannot be underestimated — the education we receive from travel shouldn’t be kept to ourselves.
With social media and our ability to document our lives, we can tell stories that can help inspire others to travel too and we can showcase a new vantage point on other people’s lives. We can become the press ourselves, sharing the news of the world as we see it, with no agenda other than the spreading of ideas and culture.
People generally think of themselves relative to others. That is what I believe it means to live in a group; to be a citizen. Your thoughts about what is “the right group” to belong to change when you experience other cultures. Think of the group or home you’re in as more significant than just the flag that represents your home. It can possibly be more than one flag and the internet allows for the realization of this idea — providing a connection to other cultures and the efficacy of travel.
We can now fly all across the globe, seemingly to any country our curiosity leads us to. With the combined power of social media that allows us to connect with anyone around the world (friends, family, and even complete strangers) we owe it to ourselves to not only travel but, to also share our experiences.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from travel so far is this: no matter who you meet and what you learn, you owe it to yourself and those you love to share that with the world — both in person and online. The new perspectives you gain from travel can help inspire others to make the crazy leap to discover a new place and its people, and that I think is the whole point of being a citizen in the first place. We need to be more globally-minded because we have so many tools that allow this change in thought.
- Lewis, Michael. “The Undoing Project,” Page 44. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.
- McLuhan, Marshall. “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” Page 235. McGraw-Hill, 1964.
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