What Travel Taught Me About My Own Privilege

Machupuchre Fistail Mountain

I’ve made more charitable donations in the past five months than the rest of my life, combined.

After a year of hard work, research, and planning, in October, I finally took off to travel the world. I had a few thousand dollars in savings and a stable remote job good for about about $1,000 a month, after taxes.

A good enough budget for Thailand and Bali, but in the grand scheme of things, not a ton of money; a budget which I knew wouldn’t last forever. I thought I’d be pinching my pennies the whole way. I had a lot of places I wanted to see; a lot of things I wanted to do. I worried about how I’d fit it all in.But a funny thing happened after I arrived:

I started to feel guilty

I arrived in Asia a wealthy westerner, and whenever I board the plane home, no matter the contents of my bank account, I’ll still be a wealthy westerner. All around me, I have seen poverty and struggle, contrasted with the extreme wealth of a privileged few. My skin color and my status as a tourist automatically, obviously, placed me in the upper-class bucket here. But as I kicked that idea around, I began realizing the huge extent of the privilege I enjoyed even at home, in the United States.

Hubud during burning season

Because I chose to travel as an always-online digital nomad, I was unable to disconnect from my friends at home. As a blogger and an Instagrammer, I was faced with a dilemma: try and build an audience, or be humble and simply enjoy your good fortune? Being that it’s 2016 and I have aspirations of being a successful creative, I chose to try and build and audience. That’s just what life is, these days.

But every time I get on Instagram to post, or I share a blog on Facebook, I’m instantly reminded of the fact that I’m across the globe, puttering around, while back at home, many people are suffocating under the pains and pressures of everyday life.

Was my travel selfish?

A fraternity brother’s father died. I donated $100 to the funeral costs, without a thought. There was no way I needed that money more than he did.

Later, a good friend suffered an even worse loss: both parents gone in an incident of domestic violence. He was in the worst grief of his young, promising life— the entire trajectory of his life upended through a situation he had no control over. And where was I? On a beach, In Bali.

I couldn’t be there for him, and I felt horrible. I donated a lot of money to him, too. That wasn’t what he needed, but it was all I could do.

Our situations easily could have been reversed

My career as a digital nomad is one part hard work, one part luck, and one part privilege. My upbringing– white, middle class, straight male in America– provided me with a million small stepping stones, stepping stones many of my friends never had, as they attempted to wade across the river of adolescence and young adulthood on their own.

I got a “bad” degree (English major), but somehow still ended up with a job after college. And I was able to take that job across the world with me. I lost that job, in early January. I couldn’t even be mad; I was just amazed I had been able to hold on to it that long.

I hopped on a plane, flew to Taipei. I found a new part-time job– remote again– in less than a week. It doesn’t pay as well, but still.

What an absurd situation

Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

Every day I walk the streets of Taipei. The neighborhood we are staying in is old, traditional: an immigrant neighborhood, my local friend says. He is bilingual— flips between English and Mandarin at the drop of a hat. What a valuable skill! He has more to offer than I do, but he’s unemployed and burdened with student loan debt.

 

He’ll get by, as will my friend, and my fraternity brother. So will the poor Thais, who are some of the happiest people you will ever meet, despite the impoverished conditions many of them live in.

I can’t “save” any of these people— nor are they asking me too. But they’re not in these unfortunate situations because they didn’t work as hard as I did, or anything else you’ll hear on the campaign trail. They just got dealt a worse hand— and even the most personable people can only bluff so much.

This is why I also donated money, twice, to Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

I feel more compassionate and understanding, since hitting the road. I am willing to sacrifice some of my dream for those of others.

 

So after reading my sister’s post on why you should join the Peace Corps right after college, I just donated some money to a school being built in her former village. That money buys me a one-way plane ticket to my sixth country in as many months; it might buy those girls a totally new life.

 

How could I possibly do anything else?