I’ve met dozens of Australians, Europeans, Canadians and South Americans on the road, but in my first ten days in Vietnam, I only met two other Americans. TWO! That’s crazy! Where are all my people? This scenario isn’t isolated to Vietnam either. In my experience, the numbers are about the same in China, Cambodia and Malaysia.
The other travelers I’ve met always say the same thing. “Wow! You’re American? You’re only the first (or second or third) American I’ve met here! Why don’t Americans travel more?”
The answer is complicated. Maybe it’s economy, maybe we’re lazy or maybe we see no reason to explore outside of our comfortable hometown bubbles. But I think it comes down to a cultural problem that’s a bit bigger.
What’s wrong with American work culture that we only have 10 work days, maybe three weeks (if you’re lucky) vacation each year?
You can’t do anything with that! Once you take a few personal days for doctors appointments or long weekends to visit family in other cities, your days are almost spent! If you try hard, maybe you can save a few days for a quick jaunt to the Caribbean. But you’re certainly not making time to explore another continent. It takes 2 days just to fly to Asia, and those days are precious when you work for an American employer.
Did you know that many other countries have SIX WEEKS of vacation each year mandated by law?
In the U.S., the only way you’re getting that kind of time off is if you’re a teacher. But then maybe you won’t be able to afford serious travel.
Many other cultures also have a gap year tradition. After high school or university, they take six months to work and save money followed by half a year to explore our fascinating planet. What’s the result? More mature, responsible, culturally sensitive, educated, well-rounded world citizens.
I can’t tell you how many 18-year old European kids I met who are taking 6-months or a year to travel the world. Those kids will never be the same! In Vietnam, I met an 18-year old American girl named Sarah, who spent the past 6 months exploring India, Burma, Thailand and Laos BY HERSELF. When I met her, she was driving a motorcycle down the entire country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. What a badass! Her parents are probably having a heart attack. Or maybe they trust that they raised a competent, independent human being, who just happens to be female.
Compare her to where I was at 18… an Abercrombie clad, Jetta driving, multiple suitcase toting sorority girl who couldn’t possibly travel anywhere without a hair straightener, gaggle of friends and home cooked meals from mom. Sarah is such an anomaly- taking a gap year or traveling alone when you’re young, especially if you’re female, is simply not part of typical American culture.
And that’s why the only Americans I meet on the road are crazy like me. They wanted to travel badly enough that they dropped everything – quit their jobs, sold their homes, packed a bag and just left. Our employment system backs us into a corner and leaves us no choice – if you want to see the world, I mean really see the world and experience it’s people, food, culture (apart from a 7-day resort stay), you have to do something a little crazy.
The non-American travelers I explain this to are absolutely floored. Some have heard the same story before from other Americans they’ve met… and they feel bad for us. The Australians are always so appalled they say I should simply move to Oz and never look back.
Life is too short to be stuck in an office until retirement and the world is too big not to be explored. I’m all about working hard, but I also value the education that comes with traveling and experiencing new cultures. Why can’t we take a lesson from the Australians and do both? Truly work hard, play hard. There’s definitely room for improvement when it comes to American work-life balance and holiday time. Don’t you agree?