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January 11, 2012 2:54 AM   Subscribe

Cover Letters from Unemployed Overachievers
posted by infini (120 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
When people show off about their gap years, or the exotic experiences they've had, a voice in my head replaces what they're actually saying with 'Hello. I have considerably more money than you. Despite this, I managed to haggle people in the developing world out of 45p, therefore I am also fucking brilliant. Sorry you're such a pleb and therefore less interesting than I am.'
posted by mippy at 3:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [21 favorites]


Oh yes. I know this person. I know lots of this person.


Laughing does make me feel slightly less bad about not being able to enter the "stamps in my passport" competition.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:15 AM on January 11, 2012


I narrowly avoided being this person.
Still less than employed, though, so I'm not counting it as a win.
posted by Mizu at 3:44 AM on January 11, 2012


What's a gap year?
posted by PJLandis at 4:01 AM on January 11, 2012


What's a gap year?

A year taken off from study between the end of college and the beginning of university, at the age of 18 or 19. It is usually filled with work, travel, and experiences of some kind, ostensibly allowing the individual to both shakeout whims and desires before continuing their studies, and to gain some perspective on their life and its course. As a gap year can only be taken by those assuredly attending university in the future, and who have the leisure to spend a year on what they will, it is strongly associated with the children of middle class families. It is also associated with a general triteness as to how the year is spent, as many individuals seemingly do the same kind of work, travel to the same places, and experience the same things. The worst of this tendency can be found in the saga of Max Gogarty.
posted by Jehan at 4:13 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Gap year

To be fair, more students are taking them to work as fees have risen, and I might be slightly bitter as my dad told me that if I took one I'd have to hand over all the money in my bank account that was saved for university 'because you will NEVER go back and study afterwards and you'll just be a drop-out' (he was an asshole)...but 90% of the people I'd met who'd taken one could.not.shut.up about them. I've met a couple in proper grown-up life, too, so it isn't just the naivety of youth. If you want to go and help the poor, rich teenagers, you can do it without going on holiday - why not try that reading programme at the council estate at the end of your road?
posted by mippy at 4:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure I really feel comfortable making fun of any unemployed person for being unemployed, you know, there but by the grace of god go I and all that, even if they are douches.

So sure a lot of people didn't get meaningful educations out of their college experiences, as far as I can tell most jobs don't really require any of the skills they teach you college anyway. Your BS is just some bs economic signaling device that sorts you out from everyone else.

Watching the hiring game, it feels sort of like I've just turned on the discovery channel and I'm observing some vaguely pornographic courtship dance.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [18 favorites]


It is also associated with a general triteness as to how the year is spent, as many individuals seemingly do the same kind of work, travel to the same places, and experience the same things.

Yes, that's what irritated me about it too.

I'll stop being chippy about it now, particularly as I'm going to Amsterdam next week just because I can.
posted by mippy at 4:17 AM on January 11, 2012


That Max Gogarty blog (?) makes me immensely stabby.
posted by Kitteh at 4:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I spent my gap years smoking weed and working at a video store. I totes put that shit down on my resume, 'cept leave the weed part out. I sometimes mention it at the interview though, so they know I'm cool.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:21 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sure, gap years are a predominantly white middle class thing, but wouldn't you prefer white middle class kids to have spent some time sorting out shit on their own, dealing with problems that they never had to deal with before, and maybe even getting a bit of perspective about the privileges they have?
posted by twirlypen at 4:26 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gap years are not about sorting out shit, dealing with problems and getting perspective. The are just rich white kids fdossing round the world having fun. Remember that book "The Beach"? That kind of thing.
posted by marienbad at 4:37 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


When did traveling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:40 AM on January 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Well I was planning to take a gap year this year but I feel kinda shit about it now.
posted by solarion at 4:47 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


When did travelling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?

When it became a status achievement for wealthy people.
posted by Phalene at 4:49 AM on January 11, 2012 [35 favorites]


When did traveling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?

Apparently when doing things popular among the "white middle class" became a crime.
posted by DU at 4:49 AM on January 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Honest question, anyone here in the US ever take a gap year to travel the world? Even the phrase "gap year" isn't widespread in the US. Seems like the white middle class here is more of the "go to college now or you will never go and always be a bum" type.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:52 AM on January 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


When did traveling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?

About the time that a lot of the people doing so turned out to be young people with no interest in said culture outside of hanging out with other people exactly like them, patronizing restaurants serving food not that different from home, and getting as drunk/fucked up as possible.

When I was teaching English in China after college (vaguely gapyearish itself, I can't deny it) I ran into a lot of 18-19 year old brits on gap year who were somehow "teaching" English. I was in a city filled with them for the Chinese new year. They got drunk and thought it was the height of comedy to shoot Chinese people celebrating on the street with air soft guns.

In short, gits behaving badly abroad instead of at home, and behaving even worse because they don't care about the consequences, since it's just foreigners, right? They don't count as much as Brits, right?

Not a fan then, less of a fan now.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:55 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I spent eight "gap years" working in construction in Pennsylvania until I had enough money to go back to school to finish my degree. I would have loved to have been able to vagabond around Europe for a year when I was 22 but sons of forklift mechanics don't get to do that.
posted by octothorpe at 4:57 AM on January 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


And worse, when these people get back from their culturally enriching gap years, they'll forever maintain an air of superiority about getting to know the real $obviously_far_away_furrign_place because they spent a couple of months hiking the tourist trails there and obviously you wouldn't understand because you weren't there, man.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those damn middle-class white kids, always stereotyping people.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [27 favorites]


When it became a status achievement for wealthy people.

If Mommy and Daddy want to buy Buffy something, I would much rather they support her travels and studies than buy her a new Mercedes. Status symbol or not, she becomes a better person for experiencing more of the world and the people who live on it.

There is a shit-ton of envy in the link... don't get me wrong, I think it's high time we had a little class warfare to reign in the excess of the ultra-wealthy. I resent billion dollar yachts. I resent McMansions. I resent the fact there are more companies building supercars than there are compact pickup trucks. I don't resent rich kids studying or traveling - it teaches them to be open to new ideas and mindful of community, and that is exactly what's needed from the upper-middle class and the wealthy in this day and age.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:01 AM on January 11, 2012 [22 favorites]


I am a black male and I took a gap year between finishing secondary school and starting college. My parents are normal middle class folks and I did use that time to travel around Europe (I had never been to any European countries before my gap year) and it was a truly rewarding experience for me. However, I will never put that information on a cover letter.
posted by RedShrek at 5:06 AM on January 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


There is a shit-ton of envy in the link

Explore the link, its actually amusing and pokes fun at the overprivileged aid workers whose daily groceries might be a local's monthly income.

Slap*Happy, I hear what you're saying but I'm related to a few of these rich kids on my mom's side and the only thing I've seen travel do is teach them where to get a better selection of Armani.

With regard to the poverty alleviation industry (where the letter emerges from) its bad enough as it is, but I've seen trust fund designa types get daddy and mommy's friends to cough up for crap to build and distribute to the ever suffering poor. You can't turn around but there's yet another design to save teh world fundraising hoo haa - the reality rarely matches the ideal picture you paint. /end rant
posted by infini at 5:07 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


When did traveling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?

Around the time of the Grand Tour would be my guess.
posted by Dr Dracator at 5:07 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


About the time that a lot of the people doing so turned out to be young people with no interest in said culture outside of hanging out with other people exactly like them, patronizing restaurants serving food not that different from home, and getting as drunk/fucked up as possible.

So, more or less since the invention of alcohol.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:12 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I spent my gap year locked in a crate twenty three hours a day, eating cold gruel and writing a dozen letters on behalf of political prisoners every day. Anything else is bourgeouis overindulgence.
posted by griphus at 5:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [46 favorites]


Gap years are not about sorting out shit, dealing with problems and getting perspective. The are just rich white kids fdossing round the world having fun. Remember that book "The Beach"? That kind of thing.
posted by marienbad at 12:37 PM on January 11 [1 favorite +] [!]


Well, no, that's not always true at all. There are plenty of kids who go out with various charity organizations and do useful work, often far away from the typical backpacker hangouts or indeed any modern conveniences. These typically require would-be volunteers to contribute fair chunk of cash, which covers most or all of their expenses; there are also plenty of kids from poor backgrounds who are sent out on various assistance schemes. Disclaimer: I went on a scheme like this, after working for a few months to raise the money. There was a broad variety of people and attitudes there.

Now, programs like these are certainly not without their flaws and there are solid arguments that in some cases the good they do can be negligible or even counter-productive. But there are good achievements mixed in there too, and even if they might approach it in a glib and naive way (i.e. as teenagers), plenty of the participants do gain a wider and more mature perspective on their positions in the world, and are more likely to pursue more socially useful work or to donate to charity.

There are a lot of rose-tinted myths about gap-years and plenty of insufferable pricks make fools of themselves during and afterwards. But it's not completely without merit.
posted by Drexen at 5:18 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


... I had never been to any European countries before my gap year) and it was a truly rewarding experience for me. However, I will never put that information on a cover letter.

Typically an American would not, but the thing is most Europeans do put that information on a cover letter. I see it all the time.

I interpret it as a statement along the lines that they are good Mormons who have received passing marks on the necessary and proscribed year of temptation, but returned willingly to the flock and are now serious about work. Basically it's like saying "Yeah, I've done my gap year and I won't be regretting not having done it because I am working for you."
posted by three blind mice at 5:20 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I took a gap year and traveled round the world. But I was different. Just like everyone else.
posted by rhymer at 5:21 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have nothing nice to say. So I am saying this.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:24 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I spent my gap year hiking in exotic Vancouver Island for three months, and then working at a donut shop to save up for tuition at my local university. I never stop talking about what I learned hiking or the things I saw (I learned that mountains are not as pointy as I thought, but still awesomely beautiful when a cloud has settled down between them - also, tie your food up in a tree so the bears don't kill you trying to get to it).

I actually actively support the concept of a gap year - whether spent travelling or working or both. That's because I went to university in Canada, where a pre-university gap year was not common, and my university classes were filled with kids straight out of high school who hadn't really thought through why they were at university. I feel like my time away really helped focus me (I realized that I a) enjoyed studying and b) wanted to be qualified to work somewhere other than a donut shop).

But I'm still jealous of people who knew what an internship was before they were 35.
posted by jb at 5:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you are an asshole before your gap year, your gap year probably won't cure it. I didn't get one but did get to study abroad for a semester, and while I enjoyed the museums and trains and European Experience and all, I can't say it actually made me a better person. Why would it, really?
posted by emjaybee at 5:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think I'll do one now. I never did spring break either and I have always said I was going to do it when I was old enough to be a cool old guy, around 70, as opposed to a creepy old guy. I think I can get more out of it now that I am around 35 than when I was 20, I would have been passed out drunk most of the time at 20 and now I'll at least have the days I lay off drinking due to wine flu.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:38 AM on January 11, 2012


I know I'd rather be the person amusingly poking fun than the one amusingly being poked fun at, but I evidently lack the cultural education to get what this is all about.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:45 AM on January 11, 2012


I'm for all kids taking a year off (or more if they can get away with it) and just fucking off. If they do it in another country, they almost can't help but learn a little about that other culture, but if they don't learn anything, then they don't. If they spend their (family) money in a poor country, good for that poor country. It's almost certainly better for them and others than if they'd sat home and played video games on mom's couch and spent their (family) money at the corner pizzeria.

Because the realistic alternative isn't that gap year kids will stay home and become hard-working saints for the needy, but that they'll immediately join the lifelong corporate rat race to professional advancement and eventual retirement. I'd like to delay that fate for them if possible. Capitalism will still have plenty of years to chew them up.
posted by pracowity at 5:51 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


What's a gap year?

A year taken off from study between the end of college and the beginning of university, at the age of 18 or 19.


What about those of us who, after graduating high school, never attended any college or university? Can we assume that every year after high school was a "gap year"? Yes? Great! Then I'm just starting my 36th gap year!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:54 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


When did travelling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?
The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise.

Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
posted by empath at 5:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [14 favorites]


Did anyone even read the fucking article? I know the person they're referencing - Peace Corps, Amnesty, incomprehensible job title and all. The 'gap year' in question is like ten years long and not really at all a 'gap' year as much as just, like, how tho gs worked out.

I find these types, NGO workers back in Europe, to be fascinating. On the one hand there's definitely a layer of adventuring and adrenaline junky-ism (which is as insidious as drink/drugs). The culture shock whiplash leaves them staring around the playground like they don't understand why no one is shooting at anyone else. On the other they do often do good in the places they go.

This is an entirely different/ crazier crazy than 'gap year.'
posted by From Bklyn at 5:59 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I would have loved to have been able to vagabond around Europe for a year when I was 22 but sons of forklift mechanics don't get to do that.

Funny, this son of a forklift driver did. Of course my mom didn't pay for my trip, I spent most of my spare time in middle/high school working so I could afford it. Reminds me of the people I grew up with who consider not having a passport a badge of pride.
posted by the_artificer at 6:04 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Then I just chundered everywhere": Gap Yah
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:04 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Too bad ol' Ralph Waldo didn't dig traveling. Probably just didn't know how to do it right, by the sound of his grumpy grumblings. I find myself much more in agreement with Mark Twain:

...nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.
- Letter to San Francisco Alta California, dated May 18th, 1867; published June 23, 1867

It liberates the vandal to travel--you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction.
- The American Abroad speech, 1868
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:06 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't resent rich kids studying or traveling - it teaches them to be open to new ideas and mindful of community, and that is exactly what's needed from the upper-middle class and the wealthy in this day and age.

I think if that were true, people with money would be the most open, accepting people ever. They've been doing it for a long, long time, well before the previous century. There's a certain point when you watch people returning from X destination with a cry of "it changed my LIFE! I saw how people LIVED!" when it becomes just another experience to remind yourself of your own superiority. I also don't feel inclined to give them a cookie for having the right idea- the travel is all the cookies they need. Good for you, wealthy person, you didn't spend your money on morally disapproved of product! You paid a non-profit to keep you as a pet (usually)white person.

Plus it stops being about people dealing with having enough to eat or sampling other cultures and is often couched in the cliche that having less gives you a better spirit/connection to the universe so spending time around authentic poor folk rubs off on you. Hence the success of "Eat, Pray, Love" and similar, travel is also a commodity used to "finish" the participant or enlighten them, basically happiness purchased via the authenticity of other's misery.

Don't get me wrong, I have several peers who did the charity tour, but they were good people when they went and good people when they came back, and for the most part the externally noticeable difference was massive weight loss caused by horrific third world parasites and photographs of curious impoverished children filling their digital cameras. They did go through culture shock, and a period of 'gosh, we're so lucky with the wealth we have!' but all these people were the sort of introspective types who tended to reach that sort of conclusion without spending several thousand dollars to put themselves on another continent.

Thus the need to tell you that you earned a true understanding of hard work/not having shit, whether as part of some old Scrooge's lecture on being a self made man, or from a starry eyed person entering the work force, sounds like a desperate need to assert their own moral worth. Hence the skepticism when you see a letter like this, since the person is basically announcing they are a professional Good Person.
posted by Phalene at 6:07 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I would have happily taken a gap year if my parents had been willing or able to pay for it. I think it's a smarter approach than rushing straight from high school to university, if the time and travel can give you some clarity about what you want to do and how to get there.

But I've also known plenty of the specific kind of people they are making fun of in the letter, which is more about being privileged and absolutely not self-reflective, and at the same time wanting to work in development. It's an uncomfortable juxtaposition, and, as you can see from the letter, easy to make fun of.
posted by Forktine at 6:07 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are plenty of kids who go out with various charity organizations and do useful work, often far away from the typical backpacker hangouts or indeed any modern conveniences

Absolutely. But the annoying thing is, you need to have a certain amount of wealth in some cases. I looked into getting a position like this as a student, when a company who organised work placements or volunteer work had a stand at our university. One position in India cost £5000 just to go - this didn't include flights, visas, accommodation or anything other than the paperwork and a few phone calls. Now I'm a bit older and more sensible regarding money, I'd know how to try and organise something like this myself and make sure I had some cash behind me (one of my big regrets is not signing on to something like ERASMUS, which lets European students take a term overseas for a year, but illness and various other things got in the way) but that is absolutely out of reach for many kids.

By and large I do think chippiness is self-limiting - there's only so much you can blame your own underachievement on not having gone to the same schools as the people in power - and I'm no working-class hero. In fact, I'm jealous of those who have travelled and am only just getting it together myself to go and see some of the places I've wanted to since I was a little girl. But this is one of those Pavlovian reactions I get, because I work in a very middle-class industry that carries the assumption that *everyone* spent a year in India or Thailand getting stoned and spiritually enlightened, and yet very few have even met people that didn't grow up in the Home Counties. And aside from this, how broadened is your mind if you spent your year hanging out with your cousin's classmates patronising the locals while writing postcards home about how 'the poverty is, like, so real here? I mean, there are people who, like, don't even have mobiles and shit?'
posted by mippy at 6:08 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would have loved to have been able to vagabond around Europe for a year when I was 22 but sons of forklift mechanics don't get to do that.

I vagabonded around Europe in my youth, largely on the proceeds from playing the balafon on city streets and doing my first solo gigs that I scuffled up here and there. It really was "vagabonding", and no rich parent had anything to do with it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:09 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


AND I HATED EAT PRAY LOVE TOO GOD

it was like the gap year diary for overpriviledged Americans, minus the drugs and plus the psychobabble

they should have called it brunch, beg, book-tour

i wish a publisher had paid me when i had a nervous breakdown otherwise i wouldn't be too annoyed to remember how to use the shift key
posted by mippy at 6:10 AM on January 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


flapjax at midnite - ur doin it rite
posted by mippy at 6:11 AM on January 11, 2012


If there weren't gap years, no one would ever meet an Australian.
posted by smackfu at 6:14 AM on January 11, 2012 [18 favorites]


Plus it stops being about people dealing with having enough to eat or sampling other cultures and is often couched in the cliche that having less gives you a better spirit/connection to the universe so spending time around authentic poor folk rubs off on you.

But there has to be a passport involved. I would love to start hearing about people spending a gap year in, say, Bridgeport, CT.

Also, this.
posted by gauche at 6:17 AM on January 11, 2012


@ smackfu,

So true. I met an Aussie for the first time during my gap year while waiting for the train in Lewisham station. He seemed like a pleasant fellow.
posted by RedShrek at 6:18 AM on January 11, 2012


I find myself much more in agreement with Mark Twain:

...nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.


Which is funny, considering what he wrote in The Innocents Abroad.
posted by ersatz at 6:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


gap years are a predominantly white middle upper class thing

Maybe they're a middle-class thing in the U.K., but certainly not in the U.S. Hell, international travel at all unless it occurs while wearing a uniform and carrying a gun (except perhaps to Canada or Mexico or possibly when the economy was really good to the Caribbean), is pretty much an upper-class status marker.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:20 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Indeed, this article isn't at all about Gap Yah, it was about Peace Corp junkies who have hung their identity on travel and "authentic" aid work. In fact some of the attitudes being parodied in the article are on display in this thread.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:20 AM on January 11, 2012


Maybe not Bridgeport CT, but there was a great TAL about foreign students spending summers/gap years working at rest stops in New York. I must be in the naive minority here, not being ashamed of having worked in a study abroad office in a country where only 30% of people have passports. Reading more from the EAW site I get their angle and why they skewer the things that they highlight -- but here on the blue the conversation feels like a lot of bashing of young people for doing the things that young people do (which includes not being aware of privilege). I optimistically hope that the wisdom follows later.
posted by cgk at 6:39 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found this link uttterly devoid of value. It exists as an expression of the very capitalist ideology it pretends to satirize; its thin format of pseudo-comedy suggests only that the fictional author is gauchely overstating the value of their experiences for the purposes of petitioning some corporate teat to give them suckle. As various people in this thread have stated, the value of not participating in the correct authority-mandated economic-slave mode of existence can be judged in terms that have nothing whatsoever to do with your future attractiveness to dull capitalist overlords. The freedom that should be valued in its own right is the total freedom from and rejection of the outdated, facsistic concept of "productivity," the ideological virus by which capitalist instututions infect, sicken and thence maintain dominance over individuals. Laughing at the content of any "gap" year is far less important than challenging the unstated concept that a nominal gap in one's "resume" (that is, one's production-slavery personal history) should be properly viewed as only a "pseudo-gap", i.e., not a true pause in such history, which history can then be typed out and submitted to company machine-oppressors to dispassionately compute whether you are worthy of being given food.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:43 AM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Or at least that's what I overheard on the Goldman Sachs elevator - could be made up for all I know.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:46 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


This leaves me so conflicted. On one hand, it's pretty good satire. If you've lived abroad, it's hard not to find at least one point that describes you, and if you've had anything to do with the development industry, it's impossible to find a point that doesn't describe someone you've met. Anyone who's worked in the field has met the ridiculously entitled gap-year kids, the silver-spoon parental-connections set, the cheerful bureaucratic burners of donor money. And even more considerate, less loathsome types share some of these traits. The satire is deserved.

On the other hand, this piece hops on a bandwagon of fashionable resentment. For all the truths in this piece, here's a big one that's missing: For all its many, many foibles, the development industry is already searingly self-critical. And while you certainly meet the aforementioned doofuses with some regularity, my own experience was to be surrounded by smart people who were doing their best while having the good sense to wonder what the hell they were doing. Most of the expats I met abroad see value in what they're attempting, but at the same time recognize the high risk of failure, and their own limitations as expats, and spend a lot of time wrestling with the colonial legacy - not as an abstract or a slogan, but as the central challenge of their jobs and lives.

The conversation that's being had in this letter is being had all the time by development workers amongst themselves - as well it should be. It has been for a long, long time. What's happened lately, however, is that it's become a meme, in which the progressive corners of the Internet (god bless 'em) have decided that what's satirized here is the only reality: that to work in the developing world is necessarily to become this person, and to lump foreign travel and work in with unthinking privilege. I was looking at a Tumblr the other day that dispensed nasty insults at smiling white people who have their photo taken with black Africans - without context one way or the other - as if the only possible reason one might take such a photo is as a trophy.

And I think the result is even more unhelpful than the thing that's being mocked: An attitude of self-satisfaction with not having travelled. If a stint in the developing world became an obnoxious bone fide, so too is deeming oneself progressive enough to sniff at those who have tried. In truth, living abroad is neither inherently good nor bad: You can do it gracefully, or make a complete jackass of yourself. But I do think it's better than descending into a world of snark, in which it's better to sneer than to venture at all.
posted by bicyclefish at 6:47 AM on January 11, 2012 [14 favorites]


People, people... the existence of The Travel Channel has made this whole argument unnecessary.
posted by jonmc at 6:47 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ralph Waldo Emerson was actually a classic example of the pretentious gap year douchebag.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:53 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


And I think the result is even more unhelpful than the thing that's being mocked: An attitude of self-satisfaction with not having travelled.

Oh, I have as much distaste for those who say 'What you going abroad for? They all speak foreign!' as backpackers. If you've ever taken your own food with you on a holiday because you mistrust 'foreign muck', or you insist 'don't drink the water' in Western Europe, then you are also living in a world of wrong.

The thing is, gap year folk (and by this I do NOT mean VSO people etc.) look down on those who define 'travel' as 'two weeks in a hot place full of expats where you can eat chips and egg every night', but what makes the pretentious traveller worse is they think they're doing something different, when in reality they're going to, as others have said, the same places to have the same experiences. In that sense, it's no more 'travel' than a week in Benidorm will get you an insight into Spanish culture.

And it is both possible to be jealous of those who have travelled far and wide while being disdainful of those for whom travel, particularly of a cliched type, is a substitute for being interesting. I went to Greece when I was 14 but I don't feel the need to tell everyone abotu the spiritual experiences of listening to Shed Seven in the back of my parents' hire car. I have a job I like, a long-term partner, and a medical condition involving customs-worrying amounts of daily tablets, and I'd love to spend a year travelling, which is why it's infuriating to constantly see the same photos and hear the same stories.
posted by mippy at 6:56 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


When did travelling and experiencing other cultures get such a bad rap?

When it became a status achievement for wealthy people.


So, the 5th-century BCE, Phalene? Surely by the 14th-c CE...
posted by IAmBroom at 6:57 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


And yes, I would be one of those annoying people who would go to Amsterdam to get stoned if I could actually smoke the stuff. So what do I know? I'm just grumpy today.
posted by mippy at 6:58 AM on January 11, 2012


That link was disappointing. As an overqualified unemployed person, I was hoping to see creative cover letters from people like me.

Like, I penciled, inked and lettered a 12-page comic as a cover letter/resume for a local marketing company. Who did hire me. As a temp. Whom they discarded at their earliest convenience.

me? bitter? you don't say
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 7:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Gap year thing is definitely a non-US thing (the whole taking time off work or school to 'figure yourself out' is practically sinful and a disgrace to the Protestant Work Ethic), but I don't think would be the worst thing I've ever heard of. At least, it would give kids an extra year of maturity before having to declare a major.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:04 AM on January 11, 2012


You don't 'declare a major' in the UK - you apply for a course and changing your subject often involves starting your degree from the beginning. There are a couple for which you choose three subjects in your first year and then select one or two to continue with, but this is definitely unusual.

I deliberately picked a degree subject that I knew little about because I wanted a challenge* - having the flexibility to select a major would have helped make sure that was the right decision. If I chose again now I'd pick something completely different, but at the same time the last two jobs I've done were as related as you can get without actually being related at all, so who knows.


*also I saw it as a solid gold opportunity to live somewhere better than where I grew up, so this influenced my decision even more
posted by mippy at 7:09 AM on January 11, 2012


See, this just wasn't my experience of working in [second world country where I met a lot of international types]. I met a lot of assholes, yes, and honestly I wasn't the most awesome person myself since I was pretty young and very insecure. And there's definitely this white-person privilege where people who are too lazy/inexperienced/incompetent to succeed in the developed world get jobs they don't deserve because they're white.

And yet.

I've spent more than half my life now around the kind of people everyone ridicules as hypocritical, overprivileged do-gooders, the type of people who sometimes end up doing the type of work described here. Very few of them are rich or come from rich backgrounds, very few of them have secure fallbacks. Last night I went to a small meeting which was organizing support for someone in very serious need of legal and social services, and all those people - people who would be derided by the solid middle class as hipster trustafarians based on their haircuts (not based on their jobs or actual financial status) took it for granted that we were all going to kick down serious money simply because we were there. I'm a secretary, and I was the most expensively dressed person in the room. No one had cars.

When I hear [white middle-class] people talking about how awful, awful, awful those hipster fakey do-gooding white folks are, what I hear is "I want to pretend that you have secure employment and personal wealth and that your politics are fake and unworkable because I don't want to be challenged to do any kind of social justice work."
posted by Frowner at 7:10 AM on January 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Pointing and laughing is poor form.
posted by oddman at 7:11 AM on January 11, 2012


(And I add that this wasn't some kind of "teenage anarchist breaks window, goes to jail" support project, either.)
posted by Frowner at 7:12 AM on January 11, 2012


No one had cars.

Is this seriously an indicator of low income? Not asking to snark, but it would be very much the exception in London to own a car.

(I am reminded of the tumblr ripping the piss out of 99%ers by posting the EXIF data from their protest pictures, as though someone can't buy an expensive camera or computer and then lose their jobs.)
posted by mippy at 7:14 AM on January 11, 2012


Is this seriously an indicator of low income? Not asking to snark, but it would be very much the exception in London to own a car.

For a group of twelve to fifteen working, childless adults in a mid-sized American city, yes, it's unusual for there to be not even oldish cheapish car. I have a standing arrangement with a friend where I give her dinner once a month and she drives me to buy cat food and anything heavy/remote that I need. Right now, I'd really like a particular piece of small furniture but am at a loss as to how to get it because I can't drive it home, we've had deliveries stolen off the porch and having it delivered at work leaves me with the same transit problem.

In New York or even Chicago, you wouldn't need a car and it wouldn't mean much to lack one.
posted by Frowner at 7:20 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


(The piece of small furniture being very ordinary and costing about $30)
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on January 11, 2012


Although - vis a vis cars - we have some privilege in that we don't work in the remote exurbs or third shift when the buses don't run. The people who get screwed are people a couple of notches down. If you're doing under-the-table contractor work, for example, you pretty much have to have a car because the boss expects you to haul ass out to Remoteville by 6am to get started, and you're not compensate for mileage, either, and car insurance costs double in red-lined neighborhoods.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on January 11, 2012


I spent my gap year locked in a crate twenty three hours a day, eating cold gruel and writing a dozen letters on behalf of political prisoners every day.

Luxury! In my gap year, we'd wake up at 4 o' clock every morning to chase the hyaenas away from the pregnant orphan girls; quick cup a' tea with raw sewage for water; dig a well; take the dirt from that well, use it to fill in the well we dug the day before; ride a Jeep over a waterfall to get to the only place for 1000 miles with electric lights, so we could write a letter to Bono in our own blood on a banana leaf; then, back home, cold manioc porridge for dinner with chunks of unexploded ordnance for flavor; finally t' rebels would come 'round and hack off all our heads with dull machetes to kiss us goodnight!
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:25 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I actually think it's a little offensive that so many people assume "trust fund" at the drop of a hat. Reminds me of the "all hipsters have trust funds" stereotype. Right now there is a student who lives in out in the middle of nowhere in Brooklyn and drinks cheap beer and works on their artwork and makes ends meet by working at a coffee shop. He doesn't have a trust fund. Real trust fund people hang out at mansions in the south of France.
posted by solmyjuice at 7:30 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's a gap year?
posted by PJLandis at 12:01 PM on January 11


Something students with well-off parents do.
posted by Decani at 7:58 AM on January 11, 2012


Sometimes I wonder, "Why did $username_who_i_admired drop off of Metafilter?", and then I read threads such as this and I say to myself, "Ah. Right."
posted by everichon at 8:01 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whatever the contents of your resume, someone's going to find something to snark about. Too much education and too many honors, and you're pretentious, entitled, unrealistic. Too little, and you're ignorant, unambitious, uncultured. If they're in the same spot as you? They're a rival, and must be shot down.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:06 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


This letter could have been written by about a quarter of the population of Washington D.C.
posted by smoothvirus at 8:29 AM on January 11, 2012


Maybe they're a middle-class thing in the U.K., but certainly not in the U.S. Hell, international travel at all unless it occurs while wearing a uniform and carrying a gun (except perhaps to Canada or Mexico or possibly when the economy was really good to the Caribbean), is pretty much an upper-class status marker.

I grew up in Michigan, about a 3-hour drive from Windsor. When you are 19 or 20 and decide you want to legally drink in a bar, it's not a bad destination. If we really felt up for it, we'd go to Toronto, because we could. But I was always amazed at how many people in the Midwest would look at me sideways and think I was vastly rich or insane that I could go to the mystical Great White North of Canada for a drinking weekend.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 8:30 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


When it became a status achievement for wealthy people.

Ah I see if wealthy people do it, it must be bad and worthy of derision.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:41 AM on January 11, 2012



And yes, I would be one of those annoying people who would go to Amsterdam to get stoned if I could actually smoke the stuff.


Don't bother; the current government is in the process of enacting laws that would make it llegal for coffeeshops to serve anybody not living in the Netherlands, where to actually be able to buy some dope you need to be a member of your local coffeeshop and you can only be a member of one.

For Amsterdam, it would mean a loss of some twentyfive percent of tourists coming to the city because really, what else are you going to come over here for?
posted by MartinWisse at 8:46 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I spent my gap year (although that term isn't common in Canada) as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Malaysia. That's pretty much the only way the daughter of a janitor could get a gap year, and it meant a lot to me. I did a ton of volunteering, lived with local families (although, admittedly, Rotarians are above-average in terms of income and social class), and struggled a lot. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done (it's not exactly easy to be a gay white woman in a Muslim semi-theocracy), I learned a ton, and I might bring it up in job interviews - especially if they ask my experience working with diverse cultures or somesuch. The only reason I might hesitate to bring it up is that it was 12 years ago, and I have much more recent experience.

That said, some other exchangers there with me were the kids of diplomats, the kids of Rotarians, and they (well, the boys anyway - girls weren't allowed out of the house much) spent their year motorbiking around the country, lounging on beaches, snorkeling, etc. I had to spend my time more fruitfully, as this was my one and only chance at international travel. Just as youth is wasted on the young, money is wasted on the rich.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:46 AM on January 11, 2012


When people ask me for contributions for their trips to "help" Africa, by and large it's usually clear that unless they are doctors, crop scientists, or engineers (for some reason they never are), they can't do anything that Africans can't. Guess what? There are African countries where English is the main language. And it doesn't cost $3000 to fly a Nigerian to an African country that might need English teachers. I'm also pretty sure Africa has plenty of artists, musicians, people who can plant trees, and all manner of people who are willing and eager to do exactly what these Americans are going when they go to "help" Africans. Honestly, Americans probably do more good as just out and out tourists, who are at least infusing money into the tourist economy rather than roughing it.

Sorry if that sounds bitter, but I'm often amazed at the emails I get from acquaintances and family members asking for contributions so they can go to African to "help" Africans. No, not all of them are hipster trustafarians (which is why they ask me for money), but there is a an underlying entitlement under their assumptions about developing countries that makes me very uncomfortable.

When I meet young people who tell me they want to make a different. I tell them they can get a crop science degree on full scholarship (not enough of them in the US either) at most land-grant universities. Once you have that, it really is worth $3000 to fly you almost anywhere. Also, Africa at this point has many excellent universities where you can get a degree like that for next to nothing as well and really get experience with African crops and soils. A friend of mine studies agriculture at the National University of Rwanda and it costs almost nothing, but the little tuition she pays goes a long way there. Foreign students like her not only feed money into the University, but have a massive amount of potential to help Africans with agricultural infrastructure (really important on a continent where most people are still small farmers).
posted by melissam at 8:50 AM on January 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


Sure, gap years are a predominantly white middle class thing, but wouldn't you prefer white middle class kids to have spent some time sorting out shit on their own, dealing with problems that they never had to deal with before, and maybe even getting a bit of perspective about the privileges they have?

No particular reflection on the gap year as an institution, but what part of this would not be achieved by a year of living and working on the less desirable side of the city one lives or will study in?
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:57 AM on January 11, 2012


No particular reflection on the gap year as an institution, but what part of this would not be achieved by a year of living and working on the less desirable side of the city one lives or will study in?

The part where people won't be as "impressed".
posted by madcaptenor at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2012


melissam- are you talking about charity trips? There's a fashion at the moment for people to take fundraising expeditions, organised by major charities, such as 'Trek the Inca Trail for the British Heart Foundation!'. I always wonder how much of the funding is to pay for the trip and how much is for the cause. I know you have to raise a minimum amount, sometimes a couple of thousand, but it's still not cheap to get people to Peru or Cambodia.

(I thought about getting MrM two tickets to the latter as a surprise Christmas present, until I found out they were about four times what I thought they'd cost. Socks again...)
posted by mippy at 9:30 AM on January 11, 2012


Obviously it's desirable spending a year traveling and having fun. It's just that those of us that spent our gap years working at fast food joints twelve hours a day get all sulky when you talk about it.

When doing privileged things, understand that you're privileged, and try to handle that fact tactfully. It's can be a difficult thing to remember, but it really is a good idea to have some grace in how you interact with those around you.

Expect to get the occasional icy glare if you walk around saying things like, "Boy my year in Indonesia was the best, I don't know why everyone doesn't do it!"
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


To qualify my comment on this: I am not deriding people who are lucky enough to have parents wealthy enough to finance a gap year for them. Had my parents been well-off I'd have leapt at the opportunity. I was only pointing out that that is generally the reality. Unless you have a working gap year you need to be financed. And that means parental or family backing. And that means the people who go on non-working gap years tend to come from well-off families. This is bound to cause a little resentment, justified or not.
posted by Decani at 9:32 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]




melissam- are you talking about charity trips? There's a fashion at the moment for people to take fundraising expeditions, organised by major charities, such as 'Trek the Inca Trail for the British Heart Foundation!'. I always wonder how much of the funding is to pay for the trip and how much is for the cause. I know you have to raise a minimum amount, sometimes a couple of thousand, but it's still not cheap to get people to Peru or Cambodia.


It's a typical problem with volunteering overseas. Unskilled labor isn't actually in high demand in a lot of the places people go, so the money that these young missionary students pay to help in foreign places pays for their room and board and the inconvenience of training them. It would probably be easier and less narcissistic to just send the money.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:34 AM on January 11, 2012


What's the non-US equivalent to the Peace Corps - VSO?
posted by mippy at 9:34 AM on January 11, 2012


If this thread were about, say, some Republican presidential candidate boasting about never having traveled overseas the comments would be full of people recounting the wonderful mind- and soul-expanding things they learned during that crucial "gap year" or "education abroad" year experience. And it would probably feature a lot of the the very same posters as this thread.
posted by yoink at 9:35 AM on January 11, 2012


what part of this [sorting out shit on their own, dealing with problems that they never had to deal with before, and maybe even getting a bit of perspective about the privileges they have?] would not be achieved by a year of living and working on the less desirable side of the city one lives or will study in?

Don't you want to see a little of the world? Don't you think it would be good for you? Travel is what everyone does (or ought to do) if they have enough time and money. Seeing the less desirable side of your own town is something you can do nights and weekends when you're tied down by your daily adult responsibilities. You can't pop off to China after dinner and be back before bedtime; you have to go and stay there.

And from the "sorting your shit out" point of view, distant and prolonged travel is important; you benefit from getting far away from the usual support system and having to deal with things in a country where perhaps you're in the minority, you're the physical freak, the untrusted stranger, the doofus who can't even read or write, and, to an extent, maybe even the person with no home and no friends or family to fall back on.
posted by pracowity at 9:36 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]




If this thread were about, say, some Republican presidential candidate boasting about never having traveled overseas the comments would be full of people recounting the wonderful mind- and soul-expanding things they learned during that crucial "gap year" or "education abroad" year experience. And it would probably feature a lot of the the very same posters as this thread.


Context.

If an elected politician said, "Why would I need to understand other cultures? Everything that matters is here, in America," I can imagine that people might be concerned.

What's more, I think that most people would agree that it's fun and interesting to travel. It's the privilege and the smugness that are being railed against.

But you did totally almost get the smugness high ground with that post.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:48 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK - I've just realised that the Peace Corps is like Army for pacifist graduates. That is kind of awesome. We don't have anythng like that in the UK. And I doubt Army will be sending people to do nice things any time soon given all the cuts to Army's budget.
posted by mippy at 9:49 AM on January 11, 2012


Do people in the UK generally refer to the Army without the definite article? Because when I hear to it referred in that way, all I can think of is Buster from Arrested Development saying "Army had a half-day."
posted by griphus at 9:57 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Most university students in America attend a university after 12 years of public school. After that experience, you need a little time to figure out how human beings are supposed to behave.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:59 AM on January 11, 2012


Emerson, by the way, did not hate traveling, and in fact did tons of it. He may or may not have been a pretentious douchebag. I have no way of knowing since I can't travel back in time to the 1830s and interact with him.
posted by blucevalo at 10:18 AM on January 11, 2012


Is this thread some of that there class warfare that I hear the GOP carrying on about?
posted by Bovine Love at 10:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Travel is what everyone does (or ought to do) if they have enough time and money

I understand that some people really get a lot out of travel, but it's not for everyone.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2012


And from the "sorting your shit out" point of view, distant and prolonged travel is important; you benefit from getting far away from the usual support system and having to deal with things in a country where perhaps you're in the minority, you're the physical freak, the untrusted stranger, the doofus who can't even read or write, and, to an extent, maybe even the person with no home and no friends or family to fall back on.

Or, the person with American currency. Which makes a surprising number of those problems go away pretty quickly.

Don't get me wrong - lots of travel's great. So is a graduate degree, a gym membership and a pilates instructor. I don't think any of those are particularly moral things to have, either. Fun and potentially improving, sure.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:45 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I actually actively support the concept of a gap year - whether spent travelling or working or both. That's because I went to university in Canada, where a pre-university gap year was not common, and my university classes were filled with kids straight out of high school who hadn't really thought through why they were at university. I feel like my time away really helped focus me (I realized that I a) enjoyed studying and b) wanted to be qualified to work somewhere other than a donut shop).

My father once told me he thought everyone should serve some time in the military before college like he did, for much the same reasons as you wrote. While I'm not in favor of compulsory military service I can see the sense in taking some time off before settling in on studying for a career.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:48 AM on January 11, 2012


If you want to help poor people for next to nothing, join the army. At least you get a weapon as part of the bargain.
posted by Renoroc at 11:17 AM on January 11, 2012


Seeing the less desirable side of your own town is something you can do nights and weekends when you're tied down by your daily adult responsibilities.

Being a tourist in your town is not what running order squabble fest was describing, though. Moving anywhere, even within a fairly homogenous country, where you have to build a support system will test your abilities and adaptability. This theoretically gives the gap year an advantage over a two-week vacation, but as with any experience, travel is what you make of it. Spending a year in an expat enclave might be less demanding of one's coping skills than two weeks on a service trip.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:36 AM on January 11, 2012


I like posts like this — not because laughing at stereotypes makes an awesome post, but because the socioeconomic distinctions in the MeFi community shine. Everybody has personal experience, everybody has an opinion, and everybody is trying to get those across. Those varied opinions and experiences are what make MeFi great.

(And they make up for the bickering for the most part, at least in my opinion.)
posted by hypotheticole at 11:57 AM on January 11, 2012


For Amsterdam, it would mean a loss of some twentyfive percent of tourists coming to the city because really, what else are you going to come over here for?
posted by MartinWisse at 11:46 AM on January 11 [1 favorite +] [!]


I was thinking of going for the 16th & 17th-century Dutch art (a particular favourite of mine), but if there's no weed, maybe I'll reconsider. A Bruegel just isn't the same when you're sober.
posted by jb at 12:32 PM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


To be honest - I'd really like to work in a developing country, but I'm not a doctor, engineer or crop-scientist. I am, however, skilled at administration, and would happily handle spreadsheets or databases for an NGO working in a development capacity. I also have experience in archiving. (A friend of mine did this - he volunteered for several months for a charity in India, and did what they most needed from his skill set: handled their administration). Good information management can be as important as crop science.
posted by jb at 12:39 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honest question, anyone here in the US ever take a gap year to travel the world? Even the phrase "gap year" isn't widespread in the US. Seems like the white middle class here is more of the "go to college now or you will never go and always be a bum" type.

I've traveled around the world a few times but it wasn't a "gap year" since it was after finishing my degree and starting my career. There were plenty of younger "gap year" people that were annoying and just out there to party (like the people going clubbing in Uganda, which baffled me) but lots of people don't do that. I also paid for it myself after saving for many years.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:06 PM on January 11, 2012


Man, unemployed people are hilarious.
posted by cross_impact at 1:29 PM on January 11, 2012


reminds me of this (funny).
posted by leibniz at 1:47 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, another post now I feel less terrible. I am taking a gap year to first do some menial fruitpicking/labouring work for money for a few months, and then using that money to do some travel for the rest of it, given I have no idea what to move into for university presently.

What should I be doing to avoid being too stereotypical and annoying about it?
posted by solarion at 5:26 PM on January 11, 2012


Solarion, just do your own thing. Please yourself beore trying to prostrate yourself before the holy masses of Mefi. Have adventures, meet people, be on your own, travel, whatever. It's YOUR time. You can live in an expat community and get the same job as everyone else and not do anything 'worthwhile' (according to some) and still have a great time. Maybe your time away with be completely different, and rich, and rewarding, and it will change your life. The whole point of it is that you don't need to live up to any one else's expectations now - no one from home will be there to limit what you can do, or to tell you what you should or should not be doing.

Sure, people who come back and natter on endlessly about their year away can be annoying, but so can people who don't shut up about their new car, or new boyfriend, or whatever.
posted by twirlypen at 5:48 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I did a kind of gap year thing, but after college and before entering the workforce in earnest, rather than between high school and college. I hadn't intended to spend a year in <low population plains state> and <post-communist European country>, but a friend called me up and said I could get a job Out West after I graduated, and we could spend the summer getting drunk in <second-tier National Park>. I did so, and soaked up the local color, which was exactly the shade of clay-heavy soil and unceasing rolling grasslands. I had a great time working backbreaking, mandatory overtime retail six days a week, spending my off hours and days drinking too much, camping, and exploring the local trails with inadequate or borrowed equipment.

Then I met a girl from <post-communist Europe> and followed her home. I worked and struggled to make ends meet there, not "roughing it" exactly because I was actually in one of the most culturally, historically, and aesthetically interesting cities on the planet, with electricity and running water (and vodka!) and everything,. But I was living on under-the-table wages and scraping by with essentially no skill in the local language. I'd only saved enough for a one-way airline ticket and one month's rent, so when I got there I had to hustle. It was great and exhilarating and scary, and no one could have convinced me to do it for any reason but love. I didn't see any of the Europe associated with my Hemingway-inspired fantasies, because those places are now behind the Euro curtain, off-limits for those living paycheck-to-paycheck in <lower-value, but more stable and fiscally-sound currency>. With fantastic deals on weekend rail travel on the national railway, though, I was able to take several great domestic trips, sleeping in bus terminals, camping in fields with borrowed sleeping bags and the like to save money. Now I'm back in <midsize rustbelt hometown> and reflecting on what an eventful and awesome couple of years its been.

It's trite, but I couldn't have planned this experience. A "gap year" that involves saving throughout high school to finance a Hollywood fantasy of sipping espresso in a quaint Roman cafe, or even just Mom and Dad writing a check to make the same thing happen, would have been wonderful. If I had been born better off or a more forward-thinking teenager, I totally would have done it. Practically, though, I think it would have "cultured" me and helped me "get my shit together" about as well as dorm life helped me get used to "living on my own," by which I mean it would have been a great and noble attempt, colored by the experience of many before me, but would have lacked some important aspect of reality, and therefore missed the mark. Other than the stereotypes taught to me by vintage jokes and vague immigration stories passed through several generations of deeply Americanized families, I had no idea about the culture which I have now, through marriage, committed my life to understanding and appreciating. I happened by luck into what I now think of as emphatically my corner of Europe, rather than going there on a lark or worshipping it vaguely from America's heartland. I have definite opinions now about the politics of <former Soviet satellite> and feel personally affronted at their increasing slide into rule by EU bureaucrats after spending a scant two decades as a truly independent people, free from foreign powers determining their destiny as a people and a culture.

I don't mean to demean those who do all this the more usual, sure-fire, and responsible way, by allocating or saving money and buying roundtrip tickets rather than one way. Like I said above, I would have totally done it that way if I'd ever really acknowledged it as an option. Conversely, I never would have done it my way if the planets hadn't aligned in exactly the right way. Everyone should travel if they have the means. This includes hitchiking or taking a greyhound across our own nation, which is very friendly, in my experience, to travelers from all corners of the country. What I would say, however, is to beware of the voice inside your head that tells you "If only I had the money and time to do <probably incredible and worthwhile thing>, my life would be so much richer." If that's your ultimate goal, you need a better reason to travel because, all on its own, it won't accomplish anything. It has to be for some purpose, as Harold and Kumar's quest for White Castle taught us, or with company that would be worth spending time with even if it were just at the Denny's on the other side of the interstate.
posted by LiteOpera at 8:06 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


jb - there are opportunities in emerging economies in Sub Sahara like with start ups and incubators and stuff where you could look into if you're serious. Memail me if you would like to discuss this further

but there is a an underlying entitlement under their assumptions about developing countries that makes me very uncomfortable.

I want to share an example of this frustration from an entirely different context than simply volunteering or humanitarian aid.

Recently in the BBC I saw news about a guy from random spot, UK who runs a business selling small solar kits to hobbyists and small businesses decide to raise funds and to great fanfare announce that he was off to Kenya to distribute a 1000 of these solar kits for charity.

Ironically Kenya is one of the most mature solar power markets, both large scale as well as portable or small home level. There are numerous businesses, local and otherwise, in the supply chain and many local inventors/makers working on stuff.

Now imagine that this guy comes along and gives this stuff out for free, and then goes home. No supply chain, customer service or repair warranties. How different is this from dumping in a market to disrupt pricing and customer expectations? What if folks came and gave away solar kits to his customer base in the UK? What would it do to his income stream?

This is not helpful charity but mindless assumptions with embedded patronization.

GRAR
posted by infini at 8:29 PM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is just a whole lot of different stuff being conflated in this thread. Gap Yah (chundered everywah) != Peace Corps != short-term volontourism != a career in development or humanitarian aid.
posted by naoko at 11:59 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, I have a really complicated relationship with SEAWL. Some of their posts are clearly pretty in a self-deprecating humor vein*, others (like this one) just seem absurdly self-satisfied and smug. Plus, every couple months one of my classmates discovers SEAWL and feels the need to send it to the entire student listserv - they never seem to notice that this has been done a million times before, and they don't always seem to notice the mocking element of it (their commentary tends to be along the lines of "Oh my god, you guys, this is so us, right?" Augh). Also, I see that someone I know and really, really hate has made a post recently.

*Although actually I can't tell if this particular one is meant more as self-deprecating or more "this is what poseur aid workers look like - we are better than that, obvs" (which is its own complicated thing).
posted by naoko at 12:15 AM on January 12, 2012


I'll try and explain why this gap year shit pisses people off so much. It's not so much that people take gap years in poor countries, it's that they talk about their experience like it was anything but for their own amusement. Acting like you're a) a more deep and rich individual for living somewhere else for a year, or even worse, b) like you somehow made the place you lived for a year better with your presence, unless you're a doctor, scientist or investor.. that's almost offensively self-important.
posted by tehloki at 11:13 AM on January 12, 2012


They are young and impressionable. They go out in the world and get profoundly affected by what they experience. Its totally different to them. What's wrong with that? Hating on them for it is wrong on many levels. Believing they had an affect on the area they visited may or may not be delusional, but being accusing them of being self important seems to assume an awful lot about their values and is excessively judgmental.
posted by Bovine Love at 12:46 PM on January 12, 2012


What should I be doing to avoid being too stereotypical and annoying about it?

Just don't be a jerk about it to other people when you get back. "OMG, it was so amazing to be picking fruit at dawn in nature. You wouldn't understand."
posted by smackfu at 12:48 PM on January 12, 2012


Just don't be a jerk about it to other people when you get back.

Definitely.

Go out, have wonderful experiences. Just remember that being able to just take off and do what you want can be a privilege, and that other people are not lesser than you for not having the same privileges.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:20 PM on January 14, 2012


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