“Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I’d forgotten England even existed” – Alex Garland, The Beach
Twice a year, I find myself witnessing Group of Eight uni students going abroad. Their wanderings are well-documented on Instagram: the European summer spent picnicking in the Jardin des Tuileries or aboard a Sail Croatia yacht; the pre-exchange Great American Roadtrip; the ski trip to Niseko; and the obligatory working holiday. It seems like they’re ‘doing’ a new country every few days.
In an age of mass travel, going overseas is a rite of passage for many recent graduates or uni students on holidays. Travelling everywhere and often is standard for our generation—as long as you, or your parents, have the privilege to fund it.
A lot of people I’ve met, including some of my friends, see travelling as a nomadic experience that provide you with a valuable opportunity to ‘find yourself’.
What is ‘finding yourself’, apart from a phrase that is likely to appear in a self-help book or a 15 step wikiHow article? Of course, it’s a bit of an ambiguous term. But in this context it, refers to the idea that the authentic you will only come out abroad, when your true interests and passions suddenly make themselves known. It rests on the assumption that the real you is different from the you that sits through the humdrum of everyday life.
So can students really ‘find themselves’ abroad and, if not, why do we travel?
‘Finding yourself’ is an ideal, which is rarely going to align with reality.
“My life is just as exciting and superficial and boring and intriguing as my life has been anywhere,” Tennison says.
After graduating two years ago, Tennison promptly left Australia, with a plan to teach English somewhere in Asia. After two months of travelling around China, she went to Germany and then finally settled in Spain. For the past 11 months she has been teaching English in Jaén, a small city in southern Spain.
“I think finding yourself is a superficial solution to a non-problem,” she says, cracking a smile.
Superficial, in that if you are dissatisfied with your life travelling is an easy solution. And a non-problem, in that your ‘authentic self’ isn’t hidden away, waiting to be found—personal growth happens organically, and often unpredictably.
Louisa, a philosophy major, is also skeptical of the idea that you suddenly become a better version of yourself when abroad.
After hearing friends talk about how spending the summer in Europe can be ‘just soooo relaxing!’, she came to think, “So what? You were chill when you slept in, went swimming in the ocean, and then partied all night? That’s not real life.”
So there are no epiphanic truths in travel, Louisa thinks. And what’s more, all the excitement it promises—the creature comforts, the new experiences—are available elswhere.
“I don’t mean to demean some people’s efforts to ‘find themselves’, it’s just that you can adopt the so-called principles you long to discover in your day-to-day life, if you try hard enough,” Louisa says.
“If you need to pay $2000 in flights to get some alone time, meditate or walk in nature, you’ve got more issues than some humble introspection will solve.”
When you think of ‘finding yourself’ through travel, you hear the word ‘travel’ and think that ‘finding yourself’ is going to be fun. But personal growth often emerges from adversity.
“There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing,” wrote French philosopher Albert Camus. Far from having a good time, Camus says, we should have a challenging experience.
And as American philosopher Susan Neiman noted in Why Grow Up, “You do not know how far your standing—your success at school or work, your place in a family town—keeps you grounded until you give it up.”
Margery, a law student, swapped contracts textbooks for café menus and moved to London last summer to live as an urban nomad. The experience has been challenging: imagine, like Margery, that you’re in a strange town, adrift from everything that defines you and your value.
Money is running out—you need a job. But to the hiring manager at the local cafe, you’re not a student at the most prestigious law school in Australia. All you’re good for is whether you can make coffee or not. If your identity and confidence is tied up in what you’ve achieved, rather than your who you are, this can be a scary and confusing realisation.
Margery originally thought living abroad for such a long time would be considered escapism. But now, she says, the experience has proved that meeting people from all walks of life is “not necessarily about finding yourself, it’s about finding the right perspective to have in life”.
“Being able to manage and control your expectations and reactions, building resilience and how to deal with adversity,” she tells me.
She is proud to be a nomad because this lifestyle gives her the opportunity to grow her character.
Why do we need physical distance to have this psychological flexibility? Could we not develop a new perspective in Australia?
In his lectures on anthropology, German philosopher Immanuel Kant stresses that trying to learn from another culture is if you do not understand your own.
Chloe is a Perth native who seems to have lived everywhere, from West Africa to South America to East Asia. She tells me that travelling isn’t the only way to gain a new perspective on life.
“Even working in underprivileged communities in Australia…is very valuable because it humanises issues which we see in the media or are neglected,” she says.
Embarking on a coast to coast road trip of the US, the average socially-conscious tourist makes an effort to learn about African American history: they stop off at the old sugar plantations of the Mississippi; visit the cultural bonanza that is New Orleans; view Basquiat’s art in Brooklyn galleries. Slavery, they say, is a blight on America’s past; ongoing racism is a stain on its future. They are genuinely affected.
Likewise, I have seen tourists break down after visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh or Auschwitz in Poland.
And yet, Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people and asylum seekers doesn’t elicit the same reaction.
Sadly, many assume that the social and cultural history of this country is too pedestrian to even start to learn about.
Our society awards social and cultural capital to those with extensive international experience,, which means that those who cannot afford to travel are deemed less worldly.
It is frightening to think that travel—and, thus, income and wealth—can have an impact on your career prospects. A major study by international education academic Davina Potts found that almost half of graduates who had studied abroad rated ‘international experience’ as very important to their future employers.
When I mention this, Tennison laughs.
“I’ve known people who have lived in twelve countries who were no more insightful than those who had never lived anywhere but the tiny town they were born in in Franco-era Spain!”
She says that travelling can have a limited impact on personal growth when, as visitors or immigrants, we continue to interact with people of the same background.
“When you’ve lived abroad for a while, you’re almost always meeting these middle class people. You don’t get the mind opening experience of cross-cultural sharing you had the first time you travelled,” Tennison tells me.
“How about valuing something that doesn’t involve a plane ticket to get there?”
And yet, beyond an abstract idea of self-discovery, many of us have thought long and hard about leaving Australia—permanently. Sometimes we have rational preferences for other places. Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that a record number of people have left Australia for greener pastures.
Lachlan, a fourth year law student living abroad, is the quintessential thinking person’s expat. Forget escapism, forget self-discovery—Lachlan chose to leave Australia after a cold, hard look at the pros and cons.
“I think Australia is pretty highly policed, the lifestyle is very expensive, the infrastructure is all quite old, there’s not as much business opportunity,” he says. “I don’t really see a reason to stay.”
And of course, it’s easy to imagine a city with a better nightlife than Sydney, with it’s lockout laws.
There’s a certain appeal to Lachlan’s logical approach: the ease of international mobility, he would say, means we can start to evaluate and test what city in the world might constitute our own utopia, and then move there.
But it would be dangerous to assume this method is foolproof. What if our initial impressions of a place are wrong? What if a city changes? Gentrification might take hold, cheap housing might become expensive. Your host country could suddenly become hostile to foreigners. Or you might change yourself. After years of work, transformative relationships or just lots of time, you might end up a poor fit for a city that, in your early 20s, seemed like paradise.
Yet most of the expats I spoke to seemed confident in their choice of home—at least for the short term. And like Lachlan, they could point to clear reasons for that choice. Chloe, for example, wants to continue living abroad simply because she likes living in a big city with many regional connections.
“Ultimately, Australia can feel a bit isolated,” she says. “It’s multicultural but…our attitude towards immigration and race issues isn’t generally very positive. So I don’t see it being as globally welcoming a place as other countries”
Likewise, Tennison is reluctant to return to Australia because the tolerant attitudes abroad are different from many attitudes back home in Queensland.
“In Europe, I’ve kissed girls in restaurants, shimmied through the town in almost nothing after a big night out, and expressed outrageous feminist ideas to every woman within earshot,” she tells me.
That said, Chloe or Tennison hesitate when I ask them if they’ve left Australia for good. It seems the pull of home is just that strong. But even if a one-time expat does move back home, their time abroad can be measurably useful, and not just for providing intangibles like ‘self-discovery’. Expats can evaluate Australia—its society, its institutions, its cities—against global standards.
They can compare how things are done here to how things are done elswhere; they can apply their cross-cultural knowledge to how they do their jobs and how they live their lives as citizens of our polity. And maybe, through an interchange of ideas, they can help to make this country a better place.
USyd promises that studying abroad will help you “challenge what you thought you knew about yourself, try many things for the first time, and really get an understanding of the phrase ‘personal development’”. But what constitutes personal development is tricky to evaluate.
Although some people have rational reasons for going abroad, there’s no doubt that many of us romanticise travel.
Talk to anyone about to leave the country, and you’ll find them brimming with enthusiasm for the life changing experiences that they are about to have—or think they are about to have. But the reality of going out of your comfort zone—exhaustion, hangovers, wasted money, missed flights, fights with friends—is also worth visualising.
It seems to me like travelling, studying or working abroad is never going to, in and of itself, help you become a better person.
Perhaps you need a change of setting to make you break old habits, to prevent your twenties from being a long, dull extension of your childhood. But most of us could probably make more of an effort to do the things we associate with travelling—making more friends, exploring the city, being in nature, learning about history, and so on—at home.
Having said that, romanticising travel can be healthy in small doses. As long as you don’t expect it to remake your personality and revamp your life, the experience or even the idea of being somewhere other than Fisher Library can help us deal with the discontentment of the here and now.