University of Vermont

University Communications

We Aren't the World: A Curmudgeon's Guide to Going Abroad

Release Date: 12-08-2010

Author: Lee Ann Cox
Phone: 802/656-1107 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Rob Gordon

"The best thing to do when going abroad," says anthropologist Robert Gordon, "is get a good pair of shoes and start walking." (Photo: Sally McCay)

In Anne Tyler's 1985 book The Accidental Tourist, the main character writes a series of guidebooks with a winged armchair as a logo, manuals on how to travel in a cocoon of the familiar -- a contemptuous notion no doubt for today's adventure-bent Westerner. And yet, University of Vermont anthropology professor Robert Gordon might argue that that's exactly how we go abroad, carrying comfortable assumptions and technological tethers that stifle any chance of meaningful personal growth.

In his new book, Going Abroad: Traveling Like an Anthropologist, Gordon traverses disquieting ground, from his unflinching aim "to unsettle the often overbearingly brash self-confidence that sometimes goes with the notion of achieving 'global citizenship'" to offering brass tacks commentary on sex with locals and bathroom matters where there is, well, no bathroom.

The timing is right: in recently released Open Doors data reported by Inside Higher Ed, American college students are increasingly trading traditional Western European study abroad destinations for places like China, Africa and the Middle East -- more exotic locales that are the book's prime focus. But is it possible to create an authentic experience?

To understand Gordon's perspective as a professor, an anthropologist and a native of the former South West Africa (now Namibia), UVM Today sat down with him for a chat that revealed a wry devilish humor and a maddening mix of opinions that can perhaps come only from someone who says his favorite color is gray, a misty space that's neither black nor white.

UVM Today: The introduction to Going Abroad announces it to be curmudgeonly and idiosyncratic. Can you talk about why you wanted to write this book?

Robert Gordon: I just got so concerned about students who would go abroad and come back and say, 'Oh, this trip really changed me,' and not realize that it hasn't changed them at all. What really struck me, too, is reading study abroad narratives for many, many years -- it's all about me, me, me. I did this, I did that, I outsmarted the natives, I survived. It's not about what I learned from other people.

I've been ranting to my students about maturity. Maturity is the ability to look at a situation from the perspective of the other person -- that's the whole point of travel. The other important thing is to learn humility. I think humility is the ability to accept that we are fools, to accept that we are a bunch of jerks some of the time, that we are entertainment to people.

You write that you are clearly in favor of travel but there seems to be a lot of ambivalence about it.

There is a lot of ambivalence, I think everyone should be ambivalent. There's nothing worse than someone who's made up their mind, boom, boom, boom. We should recognize that we're ambivalent in everything we do, we question, 'Did I do the right thing?' I think that has a lot of important psychological implications. I don't see anything as being just straight this or that. You've always got to be doubting, doubting, doubting or querying, querying, querying, never taking anything at face value.

And, yes, there is that cynicism. Let me be radical. I don't think you can go abroad anymore. We're all hooked on bloody things like this (iPhone recording the interview). In the old days when you went abroad you lost contact with home. Now you're networked. So the nature of travel and having an adventure has changed over the last few decades.

Another topic you raise is that travel can perpetuate global inequality.

We can cause a lot of harm by this false sense of, "Oh, I'm knowledgeable about the world," or, "I know a lot of things that other people don't know." It's not so much global citizenship, it's intellectual arrogance that I'm trying to get at. Or moral arrogance too: our way is better.

We've also got a particular problem when we travel abroad because travel has become such a commodity, it's a consumer item.

I think travel should be a subversive idea, making you question taken-for-granted assumptions back home or maybe making you just realize there are alternative ways of doing things.

You have deep concerns about travelers having sex with locals because of the enormous power differential. Flirting, too, you write, "captures much of the contemporary sense of adventure with its air of self-indulgent lack of responsibility." What is adventure -- or what should it be?

I've done an awful lot of thinking about what constitutes an adventure, which is a lot of risk-taking where you don't know what the consequences are going to be. Flirting has become such a form of entertainment, but it's this idea that you're playing with someone, it's a game. Flirting I associate with many things including frivolity, and I suppose, yes, adventure nowadays has become increasingly frivolous and commodified due to marketing, law suits and the rapid rise of the "me" generation.

Is there any kind of indulgence that's okay?

Well, yeah -- chocolates.

Can we travel well, be responsible to others and to ourselves?

Let me be clear. For some people travel has been a mind bender. It has opened the world, changed their lives significantly. It hasn't just reinforced their stereotypes. And this book is aimed at encouraging more people like that, encouraging responsible travel. We can't stop it. If we're going to go and waste all of this carbon let's at least get something sensible out of it. I would be a hypocrite if I said I was against travel -- I've been away eight years.

The thing that I've learned from doing research when traveling abroad is the best style is having a conversation, it's having a two-way process. (When I travel) I just want to schmooze in the marketplaces -- maybe go to one museum and spend three hours looking at one artifact.

And keeping journals, writing and reflecting on your experiences, is so important for enriching travel -- and not just laptopping, which means you can be quick and careless and cut and paste and delete as the need may be. Pen and paper forces one to be serious about composing and to think through what one is trying to convey. There is a certain clarity of thought and style in the classic ethnographies which is not found in contemporary versions. So the quality of the writing has actually declined in my opinion. The curmudgeon strikes again! Let's return to the old pen.

I can never stay on topic because I don't think you should. One of the things I learned as a student in South Africa is the ability to follow an argument to where it leads. And I think you should have the ability to follow a journey to where it leads, to have that moral courage even if it means avoiding boundaries, if it means crossing them.