Year after year, young British and American students flock to Asia to “find themselves” before dedicating 3-4 years of their lives to earning a degree. Malia Obama has done it, so has Benedict Cumberbatch and even Prince William has been there. Companies have profited off of gap year and voluntourism schemes where students can pay several thousand dollars to teach English in Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia, China, and Japan while immersing themselves in the local culture.
These students can be seen on Instagram feeding baby elephants, relaxing on sandy beaches and posing for photos with underprivileged Asian children from local villages without their parents’ consent. Essentially, it’s a guilt-free way for foreigners to explore Asian countries while tricking themselves into thinking they are helping local communities and civilizing the uncivilized — textbook definition white saviors.
Despite new reports every year that expose the harm caused by these volunteering schemes, warnings of the tourism industry destroying the local economy and worsening the standard of living for children and animals — often unwilling participants — the blissfully ignorant tourists choose to ignore the implications of their actions and continue to slather on their sun cream and whip out their GoPros.
Sure, dressing up in traditional Asian clothes could be excused as learning about the culture, if we’re being lenient, even posing for photos with locals can be seen as making new friends abroad. But it’s important to realize when your beach or jungle holiday is turning into diet colonialism. Ask yourself, what right do you have to impose on orphans in developing countries, what qualifications do you actually have to be teaching them? It would be disingenuous to believe that the intent of these trips are to benefit the people abroad, isn’t it rather selfish to want to feel better about yourself at the expense of local communities?
These young “volunteers” generally do not go through strict background checks and are allowed to play and interact with children from underprivileged backgrounds with limited supervision. If the tables were turned and foreigners were playing, hugging and posing for photos with orphaned white children in the U.S. the conversation would likely take on a different tone.
Almost all of these students are guilty of expressing condescension towards ethnic communities through their personal social media accounts. While they claim to be respecting the culture of the countries they have chosen to visit, they often take on the role of white saviors as they post tragic stories and photos of impoverished children who find joys in the little things. Private matters such as the tragic death of family members are casually mentioned on Facebook while unsuspecting locals are photographed in their most unflattering state. All consideration regarding the privacy of the locals are thrown out and they are exploited for the benefit of white tourists.
When white visitors are not being vocal about their pity towards Asian locals, the condescension is often extended towards other Asian tourists as well. This constant need to assert dominance and establish themselves as more civilized, comes out in the form of hypocritical criticism against the stereotype of the Chinese tourist. Gap year students fail to realize that as fellow tourists, imposing on local villages and stumbling around the streets of Asian countries intoxicated after a wild night out, they are just as guilty, if not more, when it comes to rude behavior and disregard for the well being of the people and nature surrounding them.
As western-born foreigners, they often lack the proper respect and understanding of Asian culture. And while most Asian countries are more than happy to share our history and lively culture with tourists, we have to be seen and respected as equals before anything else. It’s important to remember that the locals of these beautiful villages are not looking for white saviors and they certainly are not benefiting off of your gap year agenda or voluntourism efforts.
It’s completely okay to want to “find yourself,” it’s even okay to want to explore the beauty of Asian countries. But if you’re not ready to respect the culture and its people and see us as your equals, please try to “find yourself” somewhere a little bit closer to home. I hear Texas is lovely this time of year.