When the Protagonist Isn’t a White Kid

I spent a year in India between 2008 and 2009. I was conducting research, taking classes, and teaching at schools. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed my time abroad. In fact, I frequently say the exact opposite. But I wanted to travel and the program in India fit the bill, so I went.

While there I saw horrible, horrendous things. I watched a 9 year-old boy’s body, wrapped in a white sheet, being dragged into a river by two men in a boat. I saw more medical disasters than I knew existed. I met people who had sold their children to survive. These were intense moments for me. They touched me deeply—for better or for worse—and they will stay with me forever. But note the verbs I used. Watched. Saw. Met.

These are not the verbs of a protagonist. They are the verbs of a witness. A witness to someone else’s story. This blog post details, in three major ways, how to reframe how one travels abroad to do good.

Personal Development vs. International Development

Rest assured, if you are going abroad, even if it’s for a good cause, you are doing it for yourself. It’s tempting to chalk it up to “doing good” or “helping the less fortunate” but I struggle to think of a single time that it didn’t mean “I want to travel on the cheap” or “I don’t know what else to do with my life” (or “delaying student loan payments,” which is completely acceptable).

And that’s okay.

You are the only person you’ll have forever, so it makes sense to make big decisions for you. And honestly, most people return from these projects disappointed in how little they accomplished. So alter your goals for your time: focus on your personal development. By the time you’ve heard and seen a significant amount, you’ll be far more useful, and most likely, a much better person in your own life.

Shifting the Hero

When you are in high school or college, it feels like you are your own Holden Caulfield or Christopher McCandless. Every day revolves around you and your decisions, and going abroad can feel like another Big Adventure you are taking. But when you leave your country your story actually becomes smaller. You become less significant.

If you keep your eyes open, you see protagonists everywhere.

And if you allow the multitudes of people you meet to teach you, you can end up moving to the periphery of your own experience. I highly recommend it.

Please note, I am not trying to discount the personal tragedies that one encounters throughout life. There is no adequate measure to stack up your life’s tragedies to another’s, and it would be a futile exercise even if you could. What I’m saying is that when you travel abroad to help others, you are not the protagonist. You are not the center story line. You are witnessing someone else’s, and they are allowing you to do so. And the local people, by letting you in, are doing you a great kindness.

Putting the World in Context

The world is a lot bigger than you. It’s better than you and it’s worse than you. It’s smarter and far more stupid. It’s a lot of things, and it’s more than you will ever be able to understand. Traveling abroad, especially if it’s for a good cause, helps open your eyes to that. You get the opportunity to see things you never have, and that is not to be underestimated or taken for granted.

Traveling abroad to do good can be a wonderful thing. You can do good work and you can have a good experience. But it’s important to, while you’re there, realize that you are not the main story line. You are entering into other people’s lives. You are the extra.

The camera should be focused directly on them.

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