Reflections on Multicultural Lives and “The Travel Bug”

© Missy Gluckmann

International Education Week rolls around each year and we dutifully plan events on our campuses to encourage students to think about the world around us.  Many of us don’t wait for this week to facilitate programs that will engage our students to think about the world that we live in through a different lens.  On my campus I have facilitated a panel nearly each semester: “Global Citizenship: Multicultural Lives and Multilingual Careers”. The intent of this panel is to illustrate the value of experiencing other cultures first hand and how knowing a 2nd language (or 3rd, 4th, 5th…) can open doors and hearts more than playing it safe and staying at home.

This panel resurfaced for International Education Week 2009.  Keep in mind that I’ve facilitated this panel 3 times and I personally know 3 of the 4 presenters. They are people that I worked with during a stint in the corporate world and we grew close during our long days holed up in the International Assignment Services offices, assisting companies and individuals/families relocate abroad for employment purposes.  We first became colleagues, then dear friends that I have stayed in close contact with for a decade – so I “think” I know these people well.  Round 3 of this panel proved that there is always something new to explore about a life lived in another culture….or cultures!

Four panelists spoke  and shared their passion for other cultures and a total of 9 languages.  Roberto, originally from Brazil, spoke of his father’s insistence that he learn English as a young boy.  A high school exchange program took him to Michigan for a year and he returned home to study for a BA degree, eventually landing a job at an Brazilian airport in customer service.  His little experience with Italian helped him to land this position, which he eventually left to pursue graduate studies in the US.  This is where his little bit of experience with French became particularly important.  He spotted a firecracker of a young woman with beautiful red hair, freckles and bright blue eyes.  Natalie, from French speaking part of Canada, eventually became his wife. When  he met her family in Canada, they were floored that this man from Brazil was able to converse with them in French.  Three children later, they are off to Singapore for a new adventure. Their 3 children speak 3 languages – from the moment they were born, Natalie has only spoken French to them, Roberto has only spoken Portuguese and they have learned English from their school in Connecticut.  As Roberto lovingly stated to our students, “Until they start acting funny, we’re going to keep throwing languages at them.”  They will next learn Mandarin in their new home.  Roberto described this new move abroad as an extension of their need to travel and experience life – this “travel bug” that international educators speak of from time to time.

Karen, another panelist, is an American who grew up in suburban Connecticut.  She quickly became fascinated with Russia in high school.  Something about this place intrigued her; she didn’t know what it was but had to pursue this language.  She wanted to talk with people there and knew that she could not rely on English, so she studied endlessly, spent time abroad in Moscow and eventually returned to the country to, as she put it, “practice my Russian since a friend was living in Moscow and had a couch that I could sleep on.”  She became so fluent that she was offered, with no prior work experience except babysitting and working at Shop Rite, a manager position in the first 24/7 copy shop in Moscow.  She worked with a team of Russians, provided sales outreach to American headquartered companies that had new offices in Moscow and learned as she went.  One of her most important nuggets of learning came when she told students about how she tried to motivate the employees by instituting an “Employee of the Month” program. Little did she know that the employees were meeting behind her back, developing a  strategy about how NOT to be given this “honor.”  Karen explained that she had not realized that a country with such a distinct communist history would not seek pleasure in celebrating an individual. She quickly changed the program to a “shift” award and it was highly successful.

The audience laughed heartily at Karen’s story and all of the unique and humorous experiences of all 4 panelists, yet the common thread was this unending need to go abroad, to learn about “the other,” and to invest in language acquisition. I have friends who are from rural areas in the US, that have never had a family member who has traveled, yet they have spent most of their lives trying to go abroad to explore other cultures.  I’ve met siblings that are as different as they can be – one that has stayed at home, married and settled down not more than a stone’s through from her parents while the other traveled abroad extensively, became an ESL teacher to facilitate more travel options and then spent 2 years in the Peace Corps.

All 4 speakers  referenced the “travel bug” repeatedly and last night I began to reflect, where DOES this “bug” come from and why do I have it?  What drives some people to take that leap of faith, get on a plane and explore another place in this world while others are completely happy and comfortable staying at home watching the news?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this subject.  Do you have the bug and if so, where do you think it came from?

  • Kyle

    That's a great question to pose, especially the bit about how one sibling can be content with small town life and another a victim of this travel bug.

    I think about my situation and I'm afraid it baffles me.

    I used to think my affinity for travel was a direct result from my dad being in the military. We moved so frequently when I was growing up it just became a part of my life, I grew accustomed to adapting quickly and became very independent for my age. When we finally stayed in one place for some time, it was a small, southern town and I felt stifled.

    I did my first exchange program my junior year of high school when I was studying French and I knew I had found my passion/career. Since then I've studied abroad three times and work for my university's study abroad office, always thinking about the next time I'll get to go again.

    But then there is my sister. Only 2 years younger than me, she too was exposed to travel at an early age. However, she has no desires whatsoever to leave the small town where we now call 'home.' This decision baffles me as I find it so confined and narrow-minded from the different views I have been exposed to.

    So, it goes back to drive–something that I feel has always caused me to push myself. I always did well in school, was my own worst critic and my parents never really had to say anything. I have carried that on to my college studies, whereas my sister did not immediately graduate from high school and has no foreseeable plans of higher education. It's not that the intelligence isn't there, because she is bright. But I think the drive just isn't there. For some people it must be issue of comfort and an an aversion for change that keeps the travel bug at bay. But for me, I just know that my passion for travel is insatiable.

    • Kyle – thanks for your story and your thoughts. I wonder if there is something particularly unique about children who move a lot? For some, there may be a peace of mind about staying in one place after so many moves, and for others, it could be the simple joy of knowing something new and interesting is around the corner. I can't say, but I do find your story fascinating. I am not sure that it is about drive – I think of so many people that I've met that work tirelessly in their chosen careers – even educators – but want to focus on their work in one place. The family member that I mentioned in my blog who lives near home is a very compassionate and driven volunteer in her community. Her sister, on the other hand, will move mountains to plot her next sojourn. We'll have to keep pondering this important question. Perhaps others have insight into whether there has been research done in this area? If you do, please do share. Thank you again for your comment Kyle.

  • Oscar Romero

    Hi Missy,

    Great seeing you this past weekend! I came upon your "Travel Bug" piece while looking on LinkedIN and I instantly identified with it! I believe you are familiar with my story in general, but as the product of a multicultural marriage and family, I have always had this "bug." I like to describe it as akin to a virus that you cannot "cure," but that remains in your mind and body for the rest of your life. As a relatively new father, I have had to treat the symptoms of this travel bug due to parental duties and finances, but much to my wife's chagrin I am always looking for the next and best trip abroad.

    My challenge is with my wife's feeling that I should be content with my life as is…and I certainly am with such a great family and two gorgeous children! BUT, I cannot be content for too long without speaking other languages and traveling abroad at least every now and then. My wife seems happy staying local and occasionally visiting her family (most of whom did not have or seek out opportunities to travel and live abroad). She enjoys international travel, but seems relatively imune to the bug as we call it. At least she is open to a 1-2 yr assignment abroad if that oppurtunity ever presents itself to us. I have told her in no uncertain terms that our children MUST live abroad at some point in their lives. She understands, but does not see the urgency as I see it.

    The biggest challenge for me is making my wife understand that my criticism of some US policies and cultural attributes, as well as my thirst to experience more countries and cultures is not meant to be blanketly "anti USA", but simply reflects my personal passions and identification with "global citizenry."

    So in summary, living with the travel bug and with someone who does not quite share the same "condition" is a challenge of compromise and mutual understanding! Fortunately, my wife and mother of my children is delighted that I am raising our kids to be at least bilingual in Spanish and English.

    • Hi Oscar,
      Great to see you too and to meet your beautiful family!
      I really appreciate your points. I'd like to share a story with you. One of my closest childhood friends, who had probably never traveled further than Florida, married a man of Puerto Rican descent. He had the travel bug. She, well, could care less! She always sat through my stories about traveling but was content to be at home with her life and friends, and their 3 children. She moved approximately 10 miles from her home when she got married and spent every holiday with her extended family – the furthest being 2 hours by car. Her husband, however, was always itching to travel and one day, when their oldest child was 6, he announced that he was taking her to Spain with a group of students (he is a high school teacher.) She put up a good fight, but he won, essentially saying that it was his job to take the students and it would be a good experience for her – and it was. Despite every excuse in the book that she could throw at him, he booked the entire family on one of his high school teaching trips to Europe. The oldest child was now 12, the youngest, 5. They had the time of their lives, including my friend. She literally came back, and despite the jet lag, emailed me to say "Missy, I get it. I understand now. Wow, I can't wait to go again and cannot wait for my kids to have more of these experiences." Apparently seeing the kids navigate another culture, live on the pure adrenaline of the experience, learn words in another language, go with the flow – she simply just "gave in" and dropped all of her defenses. She even had to admit that she was markedly moved by the experience and they are now planning to go on another European adventure this summer, all 3 kids in tow. One of the biggest things that she said to me was that somehow, she felt that it was her job to do all of the family things and that it seemed irresponsible to take off. However, she realized that many couples have their own "individual" things. Some spouses like getting away for golf trips with "the guys", some women like getting away for "retreats" with their girlfriends – and some people just simply want to travel. At some point, your wife will see that you will need to travel, just like she will need to enjoy her "thing", whatever that may be. Right now, she is clearly focused on your 2 young children and she sees that is where she needs to put her energy which is totally logical. Perhaps giving her a weekend away with a friend when the baby is a bit older, to do "her thing" will allow her to feel more comfortable with the travel bug that you can't ignore! That little step, when the kids were old enough, seemed to help my friend – we all did a girls' weekend in Boston one summer before they traveled abroad and she told me that it made her realize that her husband could handle the 3 kids alone – albeit with a few phone calls to her for silly things – but they all survived and no one starved! In time, that might be a first step. I hope this little story helps! Meanwhile, check out my older blog posting on great books for when you want to travel, but can't – they'll help you feel like you're on a trip!
      Best wishes,
      Missy

  • Oscar Romero

    Thanks that was super helpful!

    Yes, I do read travel books including "The Great American Travel Writing" series that my wife per tradition buys me every Christmas. My wife certainly enjoys getting away just the two of us, as we did when we spent Memorial Day weekend in Quebec (first time there for us both). She was going through a rough pregnancy, but still enjoyed a sushi restaurant with me, sightseeing and practicing French with the locals.

    In 2008 I put some strain on our marriage by traveling alone to Brazil, a country I always wanted to visit. I won that battle up front, but not without much protest and push back from home! I do feel a little guilty about from time to time, as she was alone with our son and she spent a lot of time wtih her family to get some help during those two weeks. On the other hand, I am so glad I went, just before that aweful global financial melt down. I also held my travel bug at bay for well over a year now.

    Not unlike the family you mentioned in your post, I am planning to take my son (now 3) to Lima, Peru for a week or so once he turns 5. My aunt and uncle, retired, spend every winter there and I have this fantasy of crashing with them and taking my son around to meet family. It would be cheaper than all 4 of us flying there and it would be an unforgettable father-and-son bonding time. I suspect I will have to fight for this one, too, but it will be worthwhile.

    I very tactfully mentioned to my wife recently that I would like to go alone with my mom to Germany next yr to visit my mom's ailing relatives. My great aunt came all the way to New England for my wedding 4.5 yrs ago when she was 90! She is now 95 and I would love to see her in Germany before it's too late. My wife seemed willing to consider this option for me…let's see what happens.

    The toughest trip I am planning is Japan to visit a former Cartus colleague. My wife wants to wait several yrs so the kids can enjoy it (makes sense), but I would prefer to make it an adults only trip to make it more affordable and to be able to do adult things without dragging around tired and cranky children. She does not seem to get this idea. One cool thing my wife wants to do with me is a family trip to the Caribbean, which would certainly help cuench that travel thirst! This could happen next yr if I nix the Germany trip!

    For now, though, I am content with my family at home, provided I have some trips on the horizon! The only trip for now is a summer jaunt with wife, kids and my mom we are planning to visit family in Southern CA. My wife will once again complain of her Spanish-induced headaches with my family in CA, but the kids will certainly benefit!

    • Oscar, keep seeking that balance – sounds like you're on a good path! I'll have to check out the Travel Writing book that you recommend. Best wishes, Missy