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Thoughts on the Role of Study Abroad Versus Tourism

May 6, 2019

Judaism has this concept that the more time you stay in a place, the greater your responsibility to contribute to it. This makes a lot of sense, and in my mind it's an important way to avoid the fetishization trap of tourism, which drains the character of the local community and contributes to the economic dependance of a place on its tourists. This concept both empirically combats this (helping a community in a long-term, sustainable way helps it to thrive rather than drain it of its resources) and also in a more ideological way; contributing is what you do when you are a local, a member of a society, rather than an outsider, a temporary tourist.

I have never been to the Northfork of Long Island, nor to the Hamptons, two popular tourists destinations located only about an hour from my house, to which people come to visit from all over the country. But I have lived on Long Island my whole life, where I have a symbiotic relationship with the people and community there; I both have grown up taking and growing on the foundation of various institutions as well as my household, and simultaneously have contributed to the fabric of the society; both by simply existing well within it and building relationships and writing academic papers and hosting people in my home, but also by adding to it through creative efforts, like taking on leadership roles, establishing clubs in school, and working with adminstrations to create institutional change.

As a resident of Amsterdam currently and for these few months, I fall into a weird in-between trap. It could be argued that my only purpose here—and the purpose of those studying abroad in general—is to take in, to absorb, to explore myself and remain accountable to no one. This is the definition of a tourist, and encompasses a pure tourist ideology on a larger scale; a venture designed to favor the individual wants and needs, a selfish pursuit that has become increasingly available to the mass market with increased globalisation and the accessibility of things like airfare and hotel packages. 

Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the selfish pursuit of self-exploration. In about a million ways, its what my whole existence has been thus far in my life. But the tourist is one that gets to be uniquely and disproportionately selfish; taking in a way that is almost unnatural and reproduced in few other aspects of our lives.

When I go to other European cities, in many ways I feel myself becoming a part of this problem. But my experience in Amsterdam is unique; there are inherent ways in which my presence here runs counter to a tourist experience. For one, I am a student, learning from local professors, engaging with Dutch people in my classes, and absorbing from a Dutch education framework. Arguably this still falls within the tourist framework; taking in rather than producing, absorbing rather than contributing. And if one were to only do these things; just go to class, and not participate, make friends or exchange ideas with locals, this would be the case.

But study abroad provides an opportunity to go beyond just taking, and to also contribute and subsequently impact your peers, classmates, and even professors with an American, and in my case Jewish, perspective. This bare level of contribution—simply existing and sharing the ideas that stem from your identity, is an important level that tourists rarely reach in any meaningful way.

I am beyond grateful for the extended amount of time I get to spend here, and for the mutual impression that this place has made on me, and hopefully, that I have in return made on this place.

Until Next Time,


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