Look Inside by Stepping Outside: Why Go Abroad?

          I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I grew up in the surrounding suburbs. I even went to college in the small, southern-Minnesotan town, St. Peter, and I attended Gustavus Adolphus College, a private school at the top of a big, windy hill. I majored in Communication Arts and Literature Teaching, and I was all set to hunker down and teach in Minnesota. Basically, I was loving life, had plenty of friends, a great family and a promising future in my home state. Why, then, would someone want to leave all of that for a third world country, supposedly ridden with drug trading, guerrilla warfare, poverty and poor infrastructure? In the beginning my answer was simple: I wanted to break the monotony of “real life” and set out on a unique adventure. After spending a year and a half in Colombia, I have come to understand that people go abroad for many different reasons, and my reason for leaving home and continuing to live abroad is a little more complex than my initial answer.

         According to my observations and assumptions, there are a few main reasons why someone would want to teach internationally. The first one centers around a thirst for adventure and an itch to see the world. Foreign-hire teachers seem to have an unceasing motivation to travel whenever they have the time and resources to do so. As international teaching offers more vacation than many professions, traveling is a huge motivation to teach abroad.

       Some international teachers make it a goal to visit every country in South and Central America before leaving Colombia. In fact, there is one teacher at my school who has been to every continent except Antarctica, and he plans to check that last one off pretty soon. When I arrived in Colombia, I was overwhelmed with the anticipation of being able to travel to wherever I wanted because I was going to have the vacation to do so. With a click of a button on Expedia, I could be dancing the Tango in Argentina, or eating some fried guinea pig in Peru before heading up to Machu Picchu for the sunset. The possibilities are endless, and the unexpectedness of what is to come keeps people on edge and yearning for more.

         The second reason why someone would want to teach abroad is for the worldly education that it provides. Teaching in a foreign country has several different advantages. First of all, if you are in a country that speaks a language other than English, it’s a great opportunity to become bilingual. International teaching is a low-pressure way to learn another language because we don’t have to use a foreign language in our jobs, but we have every opportunity we would want outside of school to brush up on our language skills. I was never interested in Spanish growing up. In fact, I took French in high school because I wanted to be different. However, when I was hired in Colombia, I started to painstakingly study Spanish, and upon arriving in Colombia, I realized how invigorating it was to speak a foreign language and be understood. Therefore, I came to Colombia for two reasons, the adventure, and because I had gotten a taste of global citizenry and needed more knowledge, experience, and eye-opening discoveries to fully quench my thirst.

         Anytime we observe people living a different way than we are used to, it is a remarkable experience. Different cultures are living their lives every day in ways we never even could have imagined. Many in this world live on less than a dollar a day – a possibility difficult to fathom for someone living in Minnesota. Residing in Colombia has opened my eyes to new foods, dancing, music, and other customs. Take communication, for instance. As someone from suburban Minnesota, where people are a little more indirect in their speech and demands (Minnesota nice!), getting used to the blunt and forward Colombian manner of speech has expanded my communication horizons.

        Here in Colombia, the education I receive in global citizenry is remarkable. When we travel to other countries, we gain a deeper perspective on our homeland, and the international relations from country to country. From the outside looking in, it is easier to see the broad picture of why things are the way they are, but if we stay in our own little bubble for too long, we become blind to our surroundings. For instance, in college, I took a month long course on social justice in South Africa and Namibia. On the plane ride out of Namibia, I met a middle-class, white engineer. After explaining to this Namibian what we students were studying in his country, and how I thought it was awful that apartheid has changed Southern Africa forever, with it’s sustained systematic injustices and even overt racism, this man wholeheartedly defended his country by denying any and all injustices that resulted from apartheid.

         “I don’t know why people say apartheid still exists. This country is a great place to live, and it has come a long way since apartheid. There are no more negative effects of apartheid.” he told me.  I found myself wondering how much he has actually been in contact with the black population of Namibia. Has he taken the time to actually acknowledge the injustices that exist in his own country, or is he speaking for only the sheltered, white, middle-class engineer class of Namibia? What we witnessed on our trip to Southern Africa was extreme poverty in the majority of the black population and much of the mixed-raced population – generations of lives that have taken a serious contemporary blow because of an unjust racist system of the past. Sound familiar, Americans?

          This Namibian man didn’t seem to notice the injustices in his own country. In his particular bubble, life was easy. After my host family in Namibia mentioned that the government throws millions of dollars at government infrastructure while there are still children going to school under tents instead of in schools, I tend to cringe when I hear someone say, “There are no more negative effects of apartheid.”

The top three photos show certain aspects of Namibia, whereas the bottom three show another. We often become trapped in one photo, with very little awareness of what is going on around us. Traveling and living abroad is like making a photo collage, juxtaposing different cultures and discovering hidden truths.  Top left: Outside a fancy Namibian restaurant. The only black people in the restaurant were service workers. Top Middle and Right: A white neighborhood development. Bottom Left: students at a remedial school. Bottom Middle: the garden they use to feed those children. Bottom right: the slum where many of those children live. The laws that produced this inequality are no more, but apartheid's legacy lives on.

The top three photos show certain aspects of Namibia, whereas the bottom three show another. We often become trapped in one photo, with very little awareness of what is going on around us. Traveling and living abroad is like making a photo collage, juxtaposing different cultures and discovering hidden truths.
Top left: Outside a fancy Namibian restaurant. There was not a single black person in the restaurant. Top Middle and Right: A white neighborhood development. Bottom Left: Students at a remedial school. Bottom Middle: The garden they use to feed those children. Bottom Right: the slum where many of those children live.
The laws that produced this inequality are no more, but apartheid’s legacy lives on.


          Now I don’t mean any disrespect to the man I met on the plane from Namibia. I too was (and still am in certain ways) much like him. Before traveling abroad, I never really stopped to contemplate what our systems, prejudices and ignorance have done to certain populations. Even by venturing outside my homeland, I still don’t know enough to understand completely how the world works and why it came to be as it is. All I know is that it’s important to talk about it with an open mind, and to look for truth by leaving behind what we have known and loved for so long.

         I wonder how much I fail to notice in my own country and state. Is there an unjust reason why poor, urban neighborhoods are predominantly black? How hard is it for East African immigrants to survive in a strange and unfamiliar land, despite the fact it is one hundred times safer than their homelands? Why did 1% of the population hold 35.4% of our country’s wealth in 2010?  The answers to these questions are illuminated when we see the inter-workings of other countries. Injustices and bigger pictures are more evident to us when we aren’t immersed in a system . . . or benefitting from it.

         During my time in Colombia I have caught glimpses of Colombian international relations. I hear hateful witticisms from Colombians directed at Venezuelans and Hugo Chavez, and I hear United States citizens being called, “gringos, Yankees, and imperialists” (However, often with playful intentions). What’s more, the minute Barack Obama comes to town, random bombs around the city start exploding. Then we see on the news that our secret service agents have been fired because of misconduct involving prostitutes. But there seems to be a gap in all the things we hear. If we are going to have an increasingly more globalized world, our media is going to have to do a better job of getting a panoramic picture. Misunderstanding breeds hatred, and a lack of education is the womb from which cultural misunderstanding is born.

         When stepping out of our comfort zones, we are humbled, but we don’t lose pride. After spending so much time in Colombia, I have never been prouder to be from the USA. But I also understand the animosity we receive from other countries or groups, and I can sympathize with and even respect the people with oppositional viewpoints. The United States has a lot of power in the world, and we have a strong hold over Colombia.  What happens when countries experience a weak central state, extreme poverty and an elite political system that excludes the less affluent of society? Crime, disorganization, violence, and a greater dependance on other world powers.

      The simple reason that The United States has made marijuana illegal, puts a lot of poor Colombian farmers out of work, and caused many to resort to other crimes in order to make a living. What’s more the USA’s drug eradication program (over a half billion dollar endeavor) has only destroyed the food crops of 10,000 Colombian farmers with little affect on decreasing coca production. Instead of solely watching Colombia on the news, and receiving the bleak identity of a guerrilla warfare ridden country, I can understand Colombia more thoroughly by residing here. Although guerrilla groups, the drug trade, poverty, and corruption have negatively affected many lives in Colombia, I can also see how life carries on through adversity and with happiness and hope for the future.

      No violence is justified, but if the reasons behind the violence are ignored, it will never cease to exist. I have never seen a FARC member or so I think. But I have gotten to know good and resilient people whose family members have been kidnapped and killed by the FARC. These people carry on smiling, salsa dancing, painting and providing loving support that they, themselves, need more than anyone. Therefore, what I have learned in my short year and a half is more than I could have asked for from any book or news article. I have witnessed another way of life, affected by a distinct and often violent history. Colombia is beautiful and Colombia is ugly. It’s important to see both sides, and we can’t successfully do that until we leave behind familiarity and venture into uncharted territory. So why go abroad? I teach internationally to get the full story, not only of the culture in which I am living, but also of the world, the home I left behind, and my self.


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