Melibee’s Kyle Rausch writes about a love affair with Europe that has been seriously challenged by another beauty – South America! Read on for the details of this torrid affair!
Western Europe has always held a special allure for the American traveler, enticing us with its rich history that we feel inextricably linked to and boasting a host of the must-see monuments and museums that invariably come to mind when we think about travel. Now, this isn’t the case for all travelers, as there are undoubtedly those that come from different family backgrounds or have a sense of adventure and seek to explore the unknown. However, for this Caucasian male with French and Hungarian origins, Western Europe, and in particular France, had always been at the top of my travel list. Though I certainly hoped to see many different places, the simple truth is every opportunity I had to travel I always found myself trekking over the Atlantic ocean to visit what was different and yet so familiar to me.
As difficult as it was to leave my previous position which afforded me the opportunity to lead student groups to Paris each summer, I knew that I had to challenge myself to experience other destinations, otherwise I would miss out on experiencing all that the world has to offer. Like so many of our students, I had thought that to have an opportunity to travel abroad meant I had to go to Western Europe—it simply was the thing that one does. My recent site visit to South America thankfully shattered this perception and gave me the little taste I needed to move on from Europe and see that there truly is a whole, wide world out there worth seeing.
Visiting 4 countries, 5 cities, and 9 universities in two weeks is dizzying to say the least. By no means do I think that I left South America truly understanding what it means to be Peruvian or what specifically separates Chilean culture from Argentine culture. However, the short visit did reveal a few subtle differences that exist between the South American countries. I think back to my pre-departure thoughts on South America and realize I ignorantly lumped the entire continent together. Surely on some level I knew that each country must have its unique qualities, but to my American mind (excuse me, I learned on my visit that I should say North American!) everything south of the border could easily be grouped together. Now, I see that each country has its own distinct flavor. The vibrant energy I felt in Lima, Peru was on a different frequency than that of the European-esque Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a non-Spanish speaker, even I could tell the difference between the crystal-clear Peruvian Spanish and the mile-a-minute garbled Chilean Spanish. Host moms in Peru and Chile were what I thought of as traditional, warm and welcoming, whereas those I met in Buenos Aires were similar to the more independent host moms I might expect to find in a city like New York.
In short, there were tons of opportunities for cultural exploration that I had not anticipated. I think because so many languages are spoken across Europe I inherently knew that I would encounter vastly different cultures by traveling throughout Europe. However, South America illustrated that a common language is not equitable to common culture. Intercultural lesson 101, I know, but so transformative when experienced in-country!
Perhaps the best example of the cultural differences between the countries I visited is the intense pride most of the locals I met possessed for their country. It became a one-upping game as I progressed from one location on my itinerary to the next. The Peruvians asserted that their pisco sour was the pisco sour and that whatever I might be offered in Chile was just a poor imitation. The Peruvians and Argentineans were also sure to comment on the fact that Chilean Spanish was so mumbled that American students were better off learning Spanish in Peru or Argentina. Meanwhile, Chileans contested that their wine and food were to be most revered. And then there was Brazil–the country that, I learned, frequently gets lumped together with the Spanish-speaking world, but whose Portuguese is as different from Spanish as it is beautiful. I left Brazil with the same thought as when I left France for the first time: I would be back before long!
There are many considerations and lessons that I took away from this first, short visit to South America that I know will only sink in as I continue to reflect. What most struck me through my initial re-entry, though, was this thought that for many of our students, South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East…these places aren’t even on their map. For the student who was like me, travel=Europe. And while I still think that Europe is a great continent and has much to offer, it is really the task of my generation of international educators to get students to understand there is an entire beautiful world with equally captivating places to explore. I think that the American K-12 system is broken in this regard. Perhaps it has changed since my time, however from early on we learn primarily about Western societies in history and social sciences courses. They become familiar to us and leave us with a natural interest to explore them one day. What if, instead, we learned about the traditional gauchos of Argentina? Or about the cultural divide left over from the Pacific War? Maybe if we inspired our students from an early age by teaching them about the many other rich cultures of the world then we wouldn’t have students like me left to feeling as if they cheated on Europe by exploring a new, different region of the world.
Of course, it is not only a lack of inspiring young students about other countries in the world–our media is a big culprit in promoting images of unsafe or poor conditions in most areas of the world. If we were to all believe the media, then traveling anywhere other than Western Europe would be taking our lives into our own hands–and even there could be questionable from time to time. Educating ourselves and students about the realities of locations is a first step in empowering students to look further than what the media would have us believe. When I told my friends I was traveling to Brazil almost unanimously they told me how dangerous it would be–not one of them had traveled to the country. Having been, I can say I felt as safe as anywhere else I might have traveled.
So, what can we do to inspire students to travel to these incredible destinations, to learn about places that might seem more foreign to them? I do think having students travel anywhere, even Western Europe, is a great first step to empowering them to seek out other destinations. However, I also think we can do our part in drumming up interest in other destinations by exposing students to these cultures while they are still at home. Share with them the traditions, entertainment and food (yes, students love food!) and help cultivate that desire to see more.