Before my siblings and I left the nest, my family tried to take a vacation once a year. We were fortunate enough such that many of these trips were to foreign countries. In the moment, I gained from these trips what you would expect, amusement, relaxation, memories, and a little cultural indulgence; they were vacations after all. As the years went on, I began to appreciate the cultural aspect more and more, but not nearly as much as was warranted. My last international trip was four years ago, which may as well be decades when it comes to the development of a teenage boy’s sense of cultural appreciation. In those four years, I’ve gained the hindsight to look back on my experiences and truly appreciate them, and thus the sliver of authority needed to write this article.
Retrospection has led me to two conclusions. First, someone who has never experienced a foreign culture can never fully understand the value of cultural literacy. No matter how much Discovery Channel or History Channel someone watches, it doesn’t come close to first hand experience. Second, travelling is expensive. Let alone the obvious expenses of airfare and hotels, more subtle costs like food, activities, and even obtaining a passport can make foreign travel impossible for some people. Unfortunately, when it comes to the cultural awareness of the average American citizen, these two realities are counterproductive. Americans often receive flak for being culturally ignorant; yet, the only real cure for such naiveté comes at a price that many people simply cannot afford.
So at this point many of you may be thinking to yourselves that I’m wrong, that there are plenty of ways to travel cheaply. You may be thinking of volunteer abroad programs, or even couch surfing for those of you who are still young and single. Allow me to counter. For anyone who has read Contra before, you’ll notice a few articles opposing such volunteer programs ; for those who haven’t, check out any article related to “humanitourism”. In general, many of these so-called immersive programs have participants stay in a cushy hotel with only a few hours total of anything culturally educational. And in regards to couch-surfing, I will concede that it is a wonderful option for travel. There’s even a safe network of people world-wide dedicated to it (https://www.couchsurfing.org/). However, this option is ideal only for young adults on a tight budget; for families or even older adults, couch-surfing isn’t really a viable option. According to their website, the average age of a couch surfer is 28 with around 180,000 active American travelers. It’s a good start, but when it comes to culturally educating an entire country, couch-surfing is pretty inefficient.
I propose a new program, a non-profit organization that provides an all-expense paid, ten day long cultural education trip made available only to citizens who have never left the country. Each participant would live with two host families, five days each. The family would be responsible for introducing the participant to their culture, by any means they consider appropriate. Flights would be paid for, and food, housing and activities would be covered by the family (who would in turn be compensated/paid by the organization). For those who don’t have passports, the organization would cover the fee and help with the process of obtaining one. People say that you’ve never seen America till you’ve seen the small towns, and that’s the same idea I’m trying to promote in different countries. Sure, you could stay in a big hotel in Seoul and say you’ve been to South Korea, but in reality that’s no different than going to NYC. And the people of the host country could come and stay in a little town in America and get exactly what we would get out of visiting their home. Of course this idea is very prototypic, factors such as safety and funding need to be worked out, but I think the foundation is there. I want people to experience what it’s really like to live in a different country, and I think giving first time travelers the opportunity to do so for free is the best way to get foreigners to stop thinking of us as ignorant Americans.
I would try and create such a program myself, but founding an international non-profit is a bit overwhelming for a college sophomore. So if there are readers with adequate resources, and you like what you read, I think the world could be better off with such an organization to make us Americans more globally minded. All I ask in return is a little recognition for the idea.