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My last post was all about how I afford to travel. Everything I wrote in there is true. But here’s the other, just as honest, truth: I could not be traveling the world right now without my parents and their hard work.
This is not to say that my parents fund my travels. Aside from holidays and occasionally treating me to things when I visit home, my parents don’t give me a dime. And that’s as it should be. I’m 26 years old and I’ve lived away from home for nearly ten years. I’m more than capable of providing for myself. If I travel, I damn well shouldn’t be asking them to pay for it.
They did, however, give me the greatest gift American parents can give their son or daughter: my college education. Aside from the meager scholarship NYU dangled in front of me to try to make me forget how ridiculously expensive it still was, they were the ones who paid in full for my education. Unlike most Americans, I have no crushing debt to pay off. That alone is an incredible privilege.
That one enormously generous gift would build and build, giving me opportunities throughout my life that many of my peers don’t have. My parents paying for my degree afforded me the chance to focus on my studies without stressing about finances or holding down multiple jobs. It afforded me the ability to graduate without a pressing need to take some job, any job, just to pay back my debts. It afforded me the opportunity to explore my curiosities and indulge my passions, even when it bordered on the ridiculous (I’m looking at you, class I took in Greek and Roman sexuality and gender). The currency of my college degree gave me a huge leg up in the teaching program that would end up being the sole source of the income that I saved up to travel.
Here’s another truth: my parents’ hard work is not only the result of their own effort, but also the circumstances that put them in a place to be there. As white, able-bodied, middle class, English-speaking Americans, they both had plenty of legs up that they then passed on to me, as hereditary as DNA.
This is not to say that either I or they were “given” everything. Privilege does not negate hard work; it just contextualizes it. Both of my parents worked their asses off, putting themselves through college, working while they studied, attaining graduate degrees, often working 60+ hour weeks.
Nor is this to say I didn’t work hard. No one got those As in college for me or stayed up until 4 writing those papers for me (although I’m forever grateful to those friends who indulged my dubious deadline diet of Red Bull and Doritos Munchies Mix and never judged me when I got a stomachache for the seven hundredth time).
No one worked for me during those five years I taught students with the most severe disabilities. No one took my place when kids spit at me, scratched me, or threatened me. No one took my place spending thousands of hours teaching children how to read, eat, write, socialize, survive in the world. That was me; I did all that. But not everyone who worked the same job as me can do what I do. They have families to support, student loans to pay off, credit card bills to pay.
And I? I have nothing tethering me home, no checks on my wanderlust. That is the ultimate privilege. And here’s the final truth: much like compound interest, privilege is cumulative, exponential.
My initial deposit of privilege – my debt-free degree – built and built. I leveraged that degree in many ways: using my writing and reasoning skills I got from college, capitalizing on the prestige of the New York University name to get into the Teaching Fellows program that granted me a free master’s degree (yet another privilege) and my first teaching job, attaining part-time freelance work that enables me to travel the world indefinitely.
In large part, that is why I’m able to travel the world. There are people just as smart and just as driven as me out there, who have similar educations and jobs and desires, who will have to work so much harder than I ever had to work to save up enough to quit their jobs and travel the world.
Keep in mind that privilege is intersectional. Being American is in itself a massive privilege. Just by virtue of being American and speaking English at a native level, you’re eligible for hundreds of thousands of well-paying teaching jobs all over the world. That’s a privilege someone speaking Creole in Haiti, or Italian in Italy, or Ukrainian in Ukraine, will never have. That’s not to say it’s impossible to quit your job and travel if you’re not a native English speaker or from a wealthy background – there are plenty of travel bloggers I admire who don’t have those advantages – it’s just a whole hell of a lot more work.
That’s why part of me rolls my eyes whenever people blindly assert that everyone can quit their job and travel. Well, no, not everyone can. Not everyone speaks English as a first language and can leverage those skills at a private language school in Jordan, Taiwan, or Korea. Not everyone can sign up for travel rewards credit cards – some people may already have massive amounts of credit card debt that they took out while in college or after graduating. Not everyone can leave the expectations and commitments to their family. Some people have sick parents, severely disabled siblings, or children with special needs who need structure and routine.
I had a combination of the desire and the incredible luck to be able to quit my job to travel the world. But that doesn’t mean my choice is any more valid than the myriad other life choices and paths there are out there. Some people have no desire to travel or they’d prefer to spend their money on other objects and experiences. So what? That’s their life choice! Shut up with your “the world is a book and those who don’t travel read only a page.”
The funny thing is that the people who say all that are often dependent on those who don’t have such privileges. In other words, if everyone were reading the “whole book,” there would be no one left to give them massages on the beach in Thailand. To live a digital nomad or backpacker lifestyle in Vietnam is contingent upon the very lack of privilege of the people in the country that’s “so cheap!” I’m not saying it’s wrong to take advantage of the lower cost of living – God knows I do. How else would I survive on a thousand dollars a month?
I’m just saying be aware. Be humble. Be cognizant of your privilege. Recognize that the mobility you enjoy is dependent on the immobility of others. And when you meet someone who’s only “read one page,” listen to what they have to say. Just because they haven’t seen the whole world doesn’t mean they can’t teach you anything.