Americans face a tricky balance when working, traveling and studying abroad. Many of us possess the resources and desire to do good, make a difference and create change. However, this current mode of thinking is insufficient, because it frequently only takes into account what we think is good, needs to change or should be different.
College students are guilty of approaching their time abroad with a scope limited to their experience in the United States. Even without prior international experience, each of us can prioritize the needs expressed by the community in which we are working.
Writer Teju Cole offered a concise explanation of this problem in his 2012 article in The Atlantic: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” He offered a term for this problem: the White Savior Industrial Complex. In short, Americans conducting humanitarian work abroad neglect the true, sometimes hidden, needs of communities abroad.
My experience abroad ranges from teaching English in Isaan elementary school classrooms, to living and mountaineering in Argentine Patagonia with seasonal residents from neighboring countries, to bikepacking around 700 miles through the mountains of western China with other bikepackers from all over the country. I am the beneficiary of an immense amount of privilege to have lived these experiences. In Isaan, I played the role of white savior.
I am not here to address white saviorism on the whole, but I can draw on my experiences to offer suggestions for other college students who are going to study abroad.
First, listen and observe before making contributions.
After finishing a game of soccer with my students in Isaan, a student brought the teacher and me each a glass of Coke. None of the students had any. I saw other glasses on the field but no more Coke. I decided to get up and pour some of my soda into the other glasses for the kids.
However, before I got there, I noticed students pouring three more bottles into glasses for everyone. They just gave it to their teacher and me first as a gesture of respect. I was caught looking like I didn’t want their Coke — but I couldn’t communicate that I initially thought there wasn’t enough for everyone and just wanted to share. Slightly embarrassed, I shuffled my way back to where I was sitting and quietly sipped my Coke.
Spend lots of time observing to learn about the norms and needs of a community abroad, especially when confronted with a language barrier.
Second, do as the locals do.
Sichuan province, China — bikes clattered against each other as my fellow travelers and I made space for the circular dinner tables. Shouts of “dàole!” and “lǎobǎn!” rung out against the hum of tired voices. These translate to “I’ve arrived!” exclaiming excitement at the end of a long day traveling in the saddle and “Hey boss!” trying to get the attention of the guesthouse host.
Meanwhile, I sat by silently, trying to figure out when to interject and how I was going to get my dinner. It appeared the only way to get anything done was to assert myself in my second, pseudo-conversational language. Doing so was nothing new for my fellow bikepackers. “Lǎobǎn! Lǎobǎn!” was not deemed as rude, though it seemed so to me. Matching their intensity was necessary to get by.
Adopting the norms of the place you are in goes a long way to support your role in the community.
Third, learn about your destination before and after arrival through books and media.
It could be an analysis of extractive practices across Latin America, a history detailing why the monarchy is never criticized in Thailand or a collection of stories that humanize China’s manufacturing capacity. Divides along religious, ethnic, language and other boundaries may frequently divide the community where you are traveling or working.
Many of my students spoke Isaan language, but couldn’t read Thai. This impeded my ability to teach. Understanding these divisions prior to arrival will give you part of the context needed to center your work on the community’s needs.
Finally, treasure the connections you make with people who are not your travel companions.
These connections will not be with the people you expect. For me, it was the monk-turned-school-director in Isaan; it was the person from Chile with the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known who taught me how to live affordably in Patagonia. Rely on the people you make connections with to help you understand the needs of a community abroad. This helps to avoid the traps of white saviorism.
The practices enumerated above won’t solve the underlying problems of the White Savior Industrial Complex, but they will help students abroad understand the issues that face the communities they are working in and contribute to solutions derived from that local understanding.
Kyle Greenspan PZ ’23 is from Portland, Oregon. He loves all things outdoor sports.