Why Travel Makes Us Better Citizens

I mentioned on Facebook earlier that I’m having trouble concentrating on my writing lately. With all of the very serious things going on in the United States right now, it can make my usual posts about where to go and what to eat seem trivial. How can I write about where to eat in Vietnam when stories like this are happening?

That said, I don’t want to subject you guys to my frustrated rantings every day, you probably get enough of that on Facebook just like me. And, I don’t really believe travel is trivial. In some ways travel is inherently a political act. It erases borders, increases understanding, and it humanizes the “other.” I think that a lot of our current politicians would benefit from that right now.

So, I decided to rework and republish an article I wrote back in 2011 about how travel actually makes us better citizens.  It seems more relevant than ever right now. The rest of this week we can get back to our regularly scheduled travel programming.

Here in the United States we have some weird attitudes about international travel. Along with our crazy work priorities, there seems to be this odd yet persistent notion that there’s something unpatriotic about traveling abroad. Not everyone believes this of course, but more than once I’ve run up against this idea of “if you love your country, why would you need to go anywhere else?”

This isn’t a very well thought out argument, and debating with these people is both perplexing and frustrating. I don’t hate America, it’s my birthplace, my home, and, although I’m not always proud of its actions, I love my country. Traveling abroad has only made this more clear to me: the truth is, I never thought so much about my country and what it means to me until I left its borders.

Now that the major topic of discussion hangs on closing borders and limiting travel, I think we need to talk about this even more.  Here are just some of the ways that travel has made me a better citizen:

Distance Brings Perspective

The Peace Park in Nagasaki

I grew up in the DC area, where politics aren’t just a cocktail party topic, they are a way of life. I can talk policy details until I turn blue, but like so many things, it’s hard to see the bigger picture from up close. Just like time gives you perspective on your personal problems, being outside the thick of the 24 hour media cycle has allowed me to think more critically about the USA.

Travel has really helped me see the United States and it’s place in the world from the outside. It’s given me an alternative perspective on our role in the Vietnam War, the atomic bombings (visit Hiroshima and I promise you will never, ever, have a cavalier thought about nuking a foreign country again), cluster bombing in Laos, the conflict in the Balkans, the drug wars in Colombia and more. We’ve made some places better, and some places worse, and not everyone has the same opinion on which are which.

We like to think we’re the leaders of the free world, but that view is outdated, and our actual role is far more complicated. The United States is a helper, sometimes, but it’s also a bully, an ally, a friend, an enemy. It just depends on where you’re standing.


Comparison Studies

Political protests in Buenos Aires

It really does feel like we’re living in 1984 right now, which means it’s more important than ever before to be a critically thinking citizen. We can’t blindly accept anything these days, and we need to really evaluate our country’s policies and how they stack up against other places.

Traveling abroad is one of the easiest ways to get an up front view of how other places do things, and to make comparisons. Having surgery in England made me intimately acquainted with socialized medicine and helped inform my views on the ACA. Living in Argentina taught me about the serious dangers of currency inflation.

And here’s a biggie: I spent 3 months living in China, a country where corruption runs rampant, there are virtually no safety standards, and the appearance of economic growth is more important than the reality. A place where the media is censored, human rights are optional, and anyone who objects to the government is silenced with jail or worse. The good of the state is put far above the needs of the people.

I do not want to live in a country like China, and this informs me as I watch the current administration take action. For me, it’s more important than ever that free speech and individual freedoms are valued and not eroded.


Every One of Us is an Ambassador

Making new friends in China

If we’re being frank we have to admit that the US is looking pretty terrible to the rest of the world right now. American’s traveling abroad are probably going to have a different experience than we did under Obama.

That kind of sucks, but it does give travelers an opportunity, some might say a responsibility, to act as one on one ambassadors for the United States. Now isn’t the time to hide behind another country’s flag, now is the time to stand up and be counted.

One of the most important things Americans can do abroad is be a good representative of our country: to show the world that real Americans don’t fit into the ugly american stereotype that’s so popular.It’s true that Americans don’t travel abroad as much as Australians, Canadians and Europeans, so our presence can attract extra curiosity.  It’s your patriotic duty to represent your country well, and it’s the only way to change people’s attitudes.

Travel Puts a Face on Foreign People

kids are kids, even Mexican kids.

And we shouldn’t ignore the other side of this cultural exchange. Travel puts a human face on other nations as well. It brings humanity to great swathes of people and forces greater compassion and empathy.This more than anything, should inform our discussion right now.

After 7 months living in Mexico with some of the nicest, most welcoming people, I am just bewildered by a President who would dismiss them all as moochers, rapists or worse. I have a hard time believing anyone else could go spend time down there and come away with a different conclusion.

We make the worst policy decisions when we start believing the world is about us versus them. People are people, everywhere you go, and good travelers know and understand this.


When I wrote the original version of this article, I called myself a proud American. I’m not sure I can stand by that now, I don’t feel very proud of my country at the moment. At the same time, I remind myself that there are things that make America great:  Americans are friendly- some of the most outgoing people on earth. We are a country based on innovation and initiative, a place of revolutionaries and self-starters. We are not people who will go down without a fight.

So keep traveling, and encourage other people to travel too. The more Americans that travel abroad, the more things will change: both in terms of people’s attitudes towards Americans, and in having more informed, worldly citizens. What America needs now is more critical thinkers, more citizens of the world.

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11 thoughts on “Why Travel Makes Us Better Citizens”

  1. What a great post! I think travel is so important to understanding humanity, and although the world has never felt smaller, there are still great divisions everywhere which is really frustrating because it feels unnecessary.

  2. People are people. But illegals are still illegals. And when you’re barely keeping your head above water and your governor and his party are funneling more and more it your tax dollars towards illegals and you have to watch a relative suffer for the rest of her life with a debilitating injury because somebody who shouldn’t even be in the country managed to obtain a vehicle and a license and nearly killed her, you lose some of that empathy.

  3. I loved this article! You’re absolutely right that travel brings perspective. Especially in the U.S., it’s easy to grow up thinking you’re the center of the universe. Travel brings about empathy, turns those “others” into actual people – not just statistics or headlines. Travel also shows that we are more alike than we are different, which is so important in today’s world.

      1. That’s so cool! We have lived, and will move back to, Puerto Vallarta! We lived in the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood and loved it! We visited Sayulita. Despite it’s relative proximity, it has a very different vibe than PV, as you know.

  4. What a great article. So true! I actually went on a mini rant yesterday about “ugly Americans” because nothing pisses me off more than seeing Americans proving the stereotype. What you said about the us vs them mentality and how travel diminishes that is SO true. People are people. Wherever you go.

  5. Thanks for writing this. The immigration stuff (and general executive orders) are making me crazed now too. The more insular we let ourselves get, the worse off we will be.

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