Reflections on Privilege and Colonial legacy
As a professional in International Education, I have the opportunity to council with students about their academic choices abroad. Every time I engage in this process, I cannot help but reflect on some of my own past travels, remembering my own early enthusiasm for the “abroad experience” that elevated my collegiate experience into a rich blend of travel, dialogue, and international classroom experience. While studying as an undergraduate, I was able to participate in three formal credit bearing learning abroad experiences, each unique and impacting. Since then, my travel has taken me to the Pacific Islands, Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe.
As a travelling student, one theme that stuck out to me wherever I travelled was the idea of “privilege.” I never really started considering the concept of privilege until I was thrown into an environment very different from my own, forcing me to examine, on an intimate level, the differences in lifestyles and opportunity for individuals both across borders, and within borders. At 19, I remember leaving the Johannesburg International Airport in an air conditioned coach bus and driving through some of the suburbs of “Joburg” on our way to the city. The sun was coming up over the hills, spreading a beautiful light over the waking neighborhoods. I began to notice well treaded paths in the grass that grew between the side of the road and the large, intimidating fences that surrounded so many of the houses. These paths cut through open lots, across fields, and back into the neighborhoods. As I looked closer, I noticed that only people of color were walking on those paths-some in domestic uniforms, others, dressed for what looked like hard work. I inquired to our Afrikaner tour guide about the scenario, and learned that these people I saw walking most likely all came from shanty town neighborhoods that lay on the outskirts of the city, and commuted, by foot, into the wealthier neighborhoods that were predominantly owned by white South Africans, all mostly of Dutch, French, or British descent. This became more apparent as I visited in the homes of certain South Africans, where I would see the quiet comings and goings of the domestic help. I found myself extremely uncomfortable with this obvious economic segregation that manifested itself so clearly in Johannesburg, it being a contemporary reflection of South Africa’s battle with colonialism and apartheid. This reality becomes more apparent as one travels into such places as Soweto, or Umtatta, where segregation is perhaps no longer enforced, but still in many ways, a social code.
My second learning abroad experience as an undergraduate took place in the South Pacific, with the majority of my time bieng spent in the Tongan Islands, in addition to a few trips to Fiji and New Zealand. Tonga is a fascinating group of islands, and one of the only surviving monarchies in the world. Though the South Pacific has a strong colonial legacy, Tonga is the only island group that remianed independent during the colonial period. The majority of this 5 month experience took place in a small village named Matahau, where I had the opportunity to immerse myself in Tongan language, culture, and day to day lifestyle. Once again, I found myself comparing and contrasting the life I knew back home with the one I had come to be a part of for this short time-noticing the lack of material goods and western conviencnes, while at the same time appreciating the rich indigenous culture that my own life personally lacked. That trip and the trips I have taken to Tonga since are some of the happiest memories of my life thus far, with the impressions of that place imprinted strongly in my mind.
My third and last undergraduate learning abroad program was a Summer spent in Paris, studying French language and politics. I was thrilled to be surrounded by centuries of exciting European art and history that seemed to leap out at me from every Parisian street corner. While in Paris, I instantly fell in love and was converted to quality bread (which is just not to be found in America, I am convinced), chocolate, and cheese. My diet consisted of these things nearly every day as I spent hours both in the classroom and discovering Paris’ museums, historical places of interests, and cuisine masterpeices. Travelling around Paris, one has to become accustomed to “le metro”-a true adventure to any visitor. While on the the metro, I often found myself seated across from an African family with a mother and her several young children looking curiously at me, and I, back at them. These families stood out somewhat, in their bright traditional African clothing, and in conversing with them I would find out that many were recent immigrants from West African countires such as Senegal, Mali, Benin, and other French colonial formers. Economy had brought them from Africa to France in search of better opportunity, but it was evident from the day to day street scenes that I encountered that life for recent African immigrants in France was far from easy. I rememeberd the feelings of discomfort I had while in South Africa when noticing the painful disparity between dempgraphic lines, and recognized those feelings again within myself while in Paris. Ironcially, a large section of my coursework that summer was on French colonial history and so I felt that I couldn’t help but be drawn to these French-Parisian immigrants in attempts to better understand their situation, and hear their story of struggle.