Worldwatch First-Person: Are Americans Really Xenophobes?

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. —St. Augustine

very year, I try to immerse myself in a new culture. It seems fitting, as a Worldwatcher, to leave the cocoon of my home town on occasion and experience the wider world we track so studiously. This past November, I spent 15 days in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was certainly a whirlwind trip, but I saw more than I imagined possible—the cultural splendor of the Angkor temples, floating fishing villages in the Mekong Delta, Hmong girls harvesting rice in the northern mountains, the traffic and nightlife of Saigon. I saw rapid economic transformation and brimming optimism about the future, but also the legacy of poverty and political oppression.

And, of course, I met lots of other travelers. In a tiny café in Dalat, I chatted with two English girls just out of high school who were spending their “gap” year working at a Saigon orphanage before heading to college. Trekking near the Chinese border, I met a German flight attendant who was escaping the bitter cold of Europe for two months. On the sleeper train heading south, I shared a berth with a guy from New Zealand on an aroundthe- world ticket, who planned to “keep going ’til the money runs out.” The place was crawling with foreigners, which isn’t too surprising given that Southeast Asia is now the world’s fastest growing tourism region. Since 1990, arrivals to Vietnam alone have increased by 20 percent a year on average.

Oh—and I met two Americans. In two weeks. Not that this was anything new; I hadn’t seen many on earlier visits to Asia, either. But the question nagged me throughout my trip: where are all the Americans? Are we really as insular as the world thinks we are? I’d heard the scorn in the voices of other travelers: “Only 7 percent of Americans even have passports, you know.”And nationwide surveys have long revealed our worldly ignorance: 60 percent of us can’t find Great Britain on a map, and 11 percent can’t even find the United States.Maybe that’s what happens when U.S. news shows devote 95 percent of their airtime to domestic stories, leaving only a few minutes for the rest of the planet.

It’s embarrassing. But are we really xenophobes, lacking interest in the people and events of the wider world? As it turns out, our shameful passport record comes straight out of Michael Moore’s bestseller, Dude, Where’s My Country?— and he got it wrong. In fact, according to a recent survey by the Canadian Tourism Commission, 34 percent of Americans 18 and older own passports (compared with 41 percent of Canadians), though a smaller subset probably actually uses them. The U.S. State Department issued a record 7.3 million passports in FY 2003. And according to the Commerce Department, more than 27 million U.S. residents traveled abroad in 2004.Much to my astonishment, the United States is actually the fifth-largest source of visitors to Vietnam, after China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, according to the country’s national tourism administration.

So the Americans are out there…somewhere. Maybe it was the type of travel I was doing. I wasn’t on a business trip to explore investments in Vietnam’s booming economy. I wasn’t staying in five-star hotels, and I wasn’t just hitting a few time-honored tourist hotspots. For most Americans, traveling abroad is an elite—and expensive—proposition. The average household income for U.S. passport holders, according to a survey from 2000, is $87,000, double the national median income, and 53 percent of holders spend $5,000 or more on trips. Cheap adventure travel—carrying a light load, eating and sleeping locally, and getting by on $20 a day—doesn’t top most Americans’ lists.

But there’s more to it than money. Let’s get back to my two compatriots I met in Vietnam. One was a firefighter from Oakland, California; the other, a 55-year old Denver man who had just retired from a long career with the oil industry.What did this (admittedly small) sample size have in common? Time. Neither was bound to the U.S.-standard two weeks’ paid leave—which, after you subtract holidays and requisite time with family, doesn’t leave many hours for extended travel abroad. Contrast this with Germany, where six weeks leave is standard, or France, where eight weeks is the norm.

When it comes down to it, Americans put in more hours at the workplace than most other people in the industrialized world, and it might just be compromising our collective worldview. If you work hard enough, you may be upgraded to a “generous” 3–4 weeks of vacation. But few have the time to take it, or end up forgoing a planned vacation because of a last-minute project. In 2005, nearly one-third of Americans either didn’t use their vacation time, or used only part of it, according to Expedia.com’s annual “vacation deprivation” survey.

The work-life tradeoff really hit home when I met a young resident of Siem Reap, Cambodia, whose uncle had recently moved to the United States. Given her English skills and eagerness to meet foreigners, I asked if she ever wanted to live in the States herself. “Oh no,” she replied. “People there work too hard.” She explained that her uncle was holding down three jobs in an immigrant area of Seattle, and hadn’t had a day off the entire year. “Life is simpler in Cambodia,” she concluded. This made me think. The general perception in the West, of course, is that life is harder in a place like Cambodia, which ranks 130th out of 175 on the UN’s Human Development Index, and where most people eke out a living tending to the rice fields, hauling in fish nets, or bringing livestock to the market. But there’s something to be said for a society where time isn’t structured in a 9-to-5 way and where hours aren’t frittered away in traffic, in front of the TV, or in line at the shopping mall.

If forced to choose, I’d probably rather stay in the United States, just as my Cambodian friend would rather stay in her home town. But I found my time abroad invaluable, if only to reaffirm my belief that it’s easy to lose perspective when you’re constrained within boundaries.Mark Twain once said that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.” Of course, the mere act of traveling doesn’t necessarily make one more “worldly,” and those who stay at home are by no means “provincial.” But my guess is that if more Americans had the opportunity—and the time—to experience the wider planet, we at Worldwatch might not need to monitor the world as closely as we do.

Lisa Mastny is Senior Editor of World Watch magazine.