Nov620096:16 pm

Why Penelope Trunk is really, really wrong

When she gives her four reasons why traveling is a waste of time. Where do I even begin…

It was shocking to both me and my friend Joanne at Rogue Stampede (who first alerted me to this article and at whose blog this has been cross-posted) that a prominent Gen-Y career coach was pontificating such an insular opinion, especially in light of the U.S.’ strengthened push for soft power in the Obama era. I’m also astounded that Ms. Trunk, as a professional career guide, so discounts (or just fails to recognize) travel, international and intercultural competency, and linguistic skills as important 21st century career competencies. ALL careers these days (not just those I blog about) are international to some degree, and the sooner her readers understand this and equip themselves with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a global economy, the better off they’ll be. I’m afraid Ms. Trunk might eventually get left behind if she isn’t able to shake this insular outlook and apparent fear of that which isn’t right beside her.

But let’s pump the brakes for just a second. As Joanne mentioned in our discussion about this, other people’s lives and decisions are not for us to judge. If someone wishes not to travel and to remain close to home, that is their decision and there is nothing wrong with this. In the same way, those who do love to travel should be permitted to do so judgment-free, yet also have no right to view themselves as better or superior to those who don’t travel (everyone who’s traveled has been at some point at least a bit guilty of feeling better than the bumpkins who haven’t been where they’ve been).

Cut to a scene from last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men: When discussing the pompous, I’m-so-cultured opinions of someone who had done a lot traveling, one character commented: “Just because she’s been to India doesn’t mean she’s not stupid.” Beautifully said and that sums it up: Just because you’ve been on an airplane a few times and eaten some weird food doesn’t give you permission to act like a know-it-all jackass.

That said, I fervently believe the benefits of travel to an individual, both personally and professionally, are far too great and real for Ms. Trunk to so casually dismiss to her readers. Let’s start with her gross generalizations about culture. She says that you don’t need to leave the U.S. to find cultures different than your own. This is certainly true, but you do need to travel to fully engage and understand them. It is true that I can experience something about, say, the black culture of Baltimore by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates or having a beer with someone who grew up in West Baltimore. It is also true that I can experience something about Ethiopian and Eritrean culture by going to the 9th and U, NW, area in DC, known as “Little Ethiopia,” and eating a meal or talking to a cabbie. But these experiences cannot possibly be as powerful, formative, or true as actually traveling to those places. Is meeting someone from West Baltimore near your home and talking about black culture the same experience as actually walking the streets where he grew up and visiting his family? Is eating tibs and injera in downtown DC the same as eating them in downtown Addis Ababa? While the vicarious experiences we may have with other cultures near our home will be informative to some degree, to pretend that this is the same as actually going to a place and immersing ourselves in that culture is lazy and disengenous.

I was also intrigued by Ms. Trunk’s thought that it’s not culture that separates us, it’s economics. Jews, South Africans, French—as long as we’re from the same economic status, we’re the same, she intimates. She didn’t get along with those pesky farm kids in France, but the city kids were “just like” her. This argument strikes me as shallow and completely unthought-out. While the city kids in France may have been more socio-economically in line with her, did she really believe that this made them just like her? That there were no cultural differences between them? Did the notion that she was speaking French or (more likely) they were speaking English ever strike her as an obvious and smacking (cultural) difference between them? What about the cheek kisses in lieu of handshakes? The small coffees instead of the big Americanos? Long lunches and late, even longer dinners? I would imagine these were more annoyances to Ms. Trunk than cultural differences worthy of particpating in and trying to understand.

While one benefit of traveling and interacting with those from a different place is precisely that we do get to break down the walls of difference and see the similarities we have, it’s just silly to say that we don’t have cultural differences, only economic ones. Seems to me that this view is completely ignoring the fact that a whole host of factors contribute to our individual identities: national culture and socio-economic are two, but there are many more—and the mix for each person is unique and impossible to quantify. As Joanne recently wrote so eloquently on her own blog, “I am Singaporean, but I am also my own person, not a mere reproduction of my cultural background.” I think “cultural” here could be replaced with any number of other words (”racial,” “economic,” “religious”) and the statement would apply to all of us, no matter where we’re from.

Next point. Ms. Trunk writes: “People who love their lives don’t leave.” Are we supposed to take this as a serious thought?  Does she really believe all travel is about abandonment and running away? What if people love a life of visiting new places and meeting new people and experiencing new things? That’s exactly why I got into the business I’m in. I remember my dad saying, right before I left to live in China: “I’d feel a lot better if you just stayed here.” But for me, that wasn’t the case. He wanted me to stay in what he viewed as a comfortable place: my hometown, Cincinnati, working for a corporate real estate office. To me, this was the exact opposite of comfortable or a life I would love. For me, the comfortable thing to do—the thing that made me love my life far more than I did before—was to go to China, was to travel. We all have our preferences—some of us want to wander, some of us don’t. As I said before, no shame in either one. But for Ms. Trunk to say that one can only fashion a life they love by remaining in the exact same place and doing the exact same things over and over and never leaving it? I believe this to be a little silly at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. I love my girlfriend and my cat and my job, and I enjoy a good downward facing dog as much as the next person. But I also love to get on a plane and end up in New Delhi—because that is excitement to me. That is living. That is creating a life I love.

Ms. Trunk also believes it’s more “effective” to revel in the sameness of your daily existence than travel some place new to experience the vibrancy of a wholly unique place, culture, people, and life. I won’t argue that staying at home and fully realizing the beauty and complexity of the place in which you live is a bad thing. In fact, this is probably something more of us should take the time to do. But in no way will travel not help you see the world differently than before. In fact, it’s by traveling, by taking ourselves outside of those places we live and come to know so well (and often take for granted) that we are able to fully realize their beauty and complexity. It’s the same way that one only truly realizes what it means to be an American (or a Singaporean or an Ethiopian) when they travel outside of their homeland and are able to view their home country, culture, and people from a completely and totally different perspective.

Travel is not about running away. People don’t plan trips only when their lives are shit and changes need to be made, but instead of facing those changes and challenges, they flee (I wonder how much the Eat Pray Love mentality is affecting Ms. Trunk’s view here).  Travel for many is about the vitality of the experience. It’s about the newness of the place and the people and the food. It’s about the anticipation of the trip—the planning, the reading, the preparation for what you may encounter. It’s about the experience in the moment—the new sights, the new sounds, the new scents, the new flavors. It’s about doing those things you always wanted to do—and going with the flow when you’re pulled along on adventures that you couldn’t possibly plan. It’s about returning to the comforting embrace of home, sharing your photos and stories with friends, reliving the best moments, telling the horror stories of the worst, all the while teaching those around you a little bit about a place you’ve just been.

This is the beauty of travel to me, and if Ms. Trunk’s grown this sour on it, then I feel bad for her. I encourage her to plan a trip abroad to somewhere she’s always wanted to go (I know there’s at least one place) and when she returns, I’d be interested to know if she feels any different.

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2 Responses to “Why Penelope Trunk is really, really wrong”

  1. [...] a devil’s advocate-like follow up to last week’s take on why travel really, really isn’t a waste of time, a few quotes from some luminaries on why, sometimes, it can be better to stay at home and how what [...]

  2. [...] of Working World and blogger at Working World Careers “guest blogs” (or rather cross-posts) in response to Penelope Trunk’s provocative article: 4 Reasons Travelling is a Waste of [...]

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