Travel & Privilege: A Modern Rite of Passage

// Steph H - @lefthandedchimp //

Travel is celebrated as a rite of passage, a coming-of-age tradition that seems to predicate the beginning of a fulfilling life. Some may not realise that rites of passage are still very much a cultural device of western society – less ceremony or tradition does not make it any less symbolic or important. Individualism has had a huge impact on rites of passage. Previously, communal ceremony was a central feature, where family or community were involved in propelling an individual forward into the next stage of life. The neoliberal mindset of contemporary developed nations has evolved rites of passage into the more individualistic forms of today. Individuals must therefore seek out and shape their own rite of passage into adulthood.

Gap-year travel and backpacking have long been markers of growing up. The location and style of travel may ebb and flow, but the symbolism remains the same: independence, self-reliance, freedom, and adventure. Human beings crave symbolism to mark the moment when one reaches adulthood and embarks onto a life of career-focused routine. Young people in developed countries like Australia can exert their privilege to obtain this symbolism, but it is a choice, not a cultural expectation.

Staying VS Going

Why is travel viewed as such a positive: is it because it is a marker of privilege? There is the formal symbolism of leaving and returning that appeals to so many – armed with stories, photographs and experiences. This formality is a rite of passage, albeit now with a large dose of privilege. This privilege then disseminates because the rise of social media allows some to live vicariously through others from the comforts of home, while holding onto aspirations of the same status. Social media allows individuals to shape their own rite of passage without the direct influence of their cultural peers or family.

So what of those who stay? There are individuals who do not enjoy the unknown, or who are content living their lives through a familiar lens. Some value further study, or they may be innately career-focused. There may be more to envy about those who stay than you realise. Committing to study and work experience early on can give your career a boost. It is entirely possible to seek out meaningful experience at home – and it is totally possible to build on cultural and communication skills without being abroad. For the right person, staying home is beneficial so long as you don’t become wrapped up in your own privilege.

Staying in the comfort of your own culture can mean turning a blind eye to what others have to offer. What people don’t realise is that this also happens to those who travel. Travelling isn’t a surefire way to become a good person, or to understand another culture. But those visiting developing nations allow themselves a chance to acquire a more holistic perspective of the realities of the world. If, at the very least, this causes them to acknowledge and analyse their own privilege then that will positively impact theirs and others’ lives. It is also entirely possible to travel and remain completely ignorant of the hardships and realities faced by so many in our world.

Is travel actually valuable?

People travel to escape, to explore. Travel for those in the developed world has almost become an ubiquitous privilege – a rite of passage where some bow to peer pressures to fit in. The style of travel – and even location – dictates part of what you can learn abroad. Personal temperament and circumstance both impact enjoyment and lessons learnt. A resort trip to Bali is vastly different to packing a backpack and boarding a plane to South America, but is either more valuable? Well, yes. A week at a foreign resort will teach you nothing of the culture. Meeting locals and exploring a variety of landscapes and urban areas will. But isn’t western society supposed to be about freedom of choice and individual expression?

Just like most things in life, that’s not really the case. Even freedom is a luxury most cannot afford. There is social and cultural capital to be gained in experiencing life abroad – location and style of travel definitely affect what you can get out of the experience. People win extra points in the eyes of others through travel to unusual places. Today it is even more highly regarded to volunteer or work while away, to truly show you have gone through the motions of validating your global experience. While the travel community is welcoming and friendly, there is a competitive element fuelled by privilege.

Importance of globalised experience

We can see that travel is valuable culturally because of globalisation; today we are all required to have a level of cross-cultural understanding. This is a good thing – familiarity allows people to engage with and understand other cultures, serving to boost societies through multicultural ties. Cultural understanding can be greatly beneficial to a career. Globalisation has ensured that those with worldly knowledge have a leg up in life – but isn’t that what the internet is for anyway?

There are those who are dismissed for not wanting to explore. In an increasingly mobile world, they can be considered less experienced personally and professionally. It might be possible to gain a moderate understanding of cross-cultural principles form the internet, but its hard to beat real-world experience. Curiosity and creativity are now considered valued attributes for employees to possess, especially as organisations strive for that ever-elusive ‘innovation’.  But can you really get that through heading overseas or will it just fill space on your CV where you might otherwise just have been unemployed?

There is no adequate response to that question. There are too many different situations requiring slight variations on experience for anyone to provide a definitive answer. Like everything today, it depends on you, and your ability to drive personal growth. Exploration can occur inside and outside a comfort zone, and it can be directed inwards without outer stimuli. There needs to be an awareness of what you are seeking and why. This applies to seeking experience or to understanding yourself and the greater world. Individuals who seek to shape their lives will always find benefit through a rite of passage. But only those who are able to understand, analyse and moderate their own privilege will find the most value.

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