When Mark Twain published The Innocents Abroad in 1869, he had in mind entertaining his readers with a travel book about a group of naïve Americans who make a pleasure trip to Europe and the Middle East aboard the steamship Quaker City. “None of us had ever been any where before; we all hailed from the interior; travel was a wild novelty to us, and we conducted ourselves in accordance with the natural instincts that were in us,” Twain tells his readers before sardonically observing of himself and his fellow innocents that “we pitied the ignorance of the Old World, but abated no jot of our importance.”
In this third installment in our Dissent series “Party of the Future: Voices from the Millennial Generation,” seven authors offer essays on their time abroad that break with the vision Twain and so many novelists have put forward of naïve Americans getting life lessons from worldly Europeans. Our seven did not arrive on foreign shores carrying unearned confidence. Whether they went abroad in the role of visitor, soldier, reporter, or Peace Corps volunteer, they did everything they could to avoid being viewed as Ugly Americans who respect neither the language nor the culture of the country they are in.
A Sense of Place
The traditional European destinations of London and Paris never even figure in our writers’ travel plans. Sarah Leonard’s cities of choice are Istanbul, Bucharest, and Budapest, and in each of these cities, she avoids staying in a hotel or youth hostel. Instead, she spends her nights in the homes of those who are part of the social networking website Couch-Surfing. Leonard’s hosts never charge Leonard for giving her a place to sleep. Their reward is the reciprocity of hosts who provide free lodging for them. The result, as Leonard points out, is the rise of an old-fashioned gift culture made possible by today’s Internet.
As someone whose family immigrated to the United States from Russia while he was still in elementary school, our second European traveler, Rafael Khachaturian, has always been fascinated by Eastern Europe. But after he visits Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, he draws conclusions that are the antithesis of a sentimental view of the Old World.
For the other five voyagers, the challenge of being in another country is even more intense. The places they visit are not simply off the beaten track, they are places anybody looking for a good time would avoid.
In “Durzay Area, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan,” the Taliban are only one of the problems that Sam Jacobson and his Marine platoon encounter. Equally formidable are the diplomatic challenges they face as they attempt to convince the Afghan elders in the small village in which they spend the night that they are a benign presence. At the same time, they must find ways to train, but not offend, the Afghan National Army infantry unit they are on patrol with.
Sabina Amidi finds herself in danger as well. The daughter of parents who came to America after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Amidi provides an eyewitness account of the Tehran demonstrations that followed the corrupt elections of June 12, 2009. Her story documents the courage ordinary Iranians showed in defying government troops and reveals depths of attachment she hadn’t realized she possessed.
First-generation Haitian-Canadian Gabrielle Apollon was in Haiti in 2010 when it was struck by a devastating earthquake. As she struggles to help victims, cope with her own losses, and to make sense of the senseless, she finds that those who had lost all had the most to teach her.
No such dramatic suffering exists in Julie Klinger’s account of her time in Little Lina, a hamlet in the Chinese Himalayan mountains, but the suffering in Little Lina caused by the Chinese government’s economic policies is, nonetheless, widespread and heartrending. Klinger finds no quick fixes.
Klinger’s view of politics dovetails with the perspective Leslie McAbee offers in her account of her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tsihombe, Madagascar. Always on the edges as an outsider, she finds acceptance only when she can open herself to the ridicule the Tsihomben women face during the annual Women’s Day soccer game.
The approach to travel abroad taken by those whose stories appear here is consistent with the view that so many Millennials have of themselves as part of a generation determined to make a difference. Thanks to the Internet, most Millennials have lived with a global perspective since childhood, and while growing up, they have often done volunteer work at home and abroad.
It is too early to tell if, like the travelers of previous centuries, the Millennials will create a lasting literature about their time abroad, but the accounts in this issue are a start. In relying on the Millennials to tell their own story, we have, as in earlier installments of “Party of the Future,” used as our model Studs Terkel, who in such oral-history anthologies as Working and Hard Times put the voices of his subjects, rather than himself, front and center. We think the Millennials are far better at telling the story of who they are than their elders. The Millennial generation—now estimated at seventy-seven million—will dominate American life in the coming years. We will be hearing more from them.
Nicolaus Mills is co-editor with Michael Walzer of Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq (A Dissent/University of Pennsylvania Press Book).