As an American, New Yorker, and actor, I grew up learning I needed to have a carefully reasoned, socially acceptable reason for doing everything I did, and without one, it probably wasn’t worth doing. “I’m just curious” wasn’t a good enough reason for enrolling in a clowning course, and “I really feel like traveling” wasn’t a ‘valid’ reason for taking a trip. People expected / needed answers like, “Being a classically trained actor, the physical nature of clowning will help me to better communicate through movement what I’ve been communicating through voice,” or, “I’m traveling to Southeast Asia and will be volunteering as an English teacher with an organization that provides free education to street children.”
While both of these latter reasons are valid, I felt pressure to only do things that could somehow fluff up my resume. After graduating from college with a drama degree, I moved back to New York, got a restaurant job, found an acting class, and started auditioning. It was what I considered to be the normal trajectory of a young actor, and I’d hoped to find success by following suit. I worked like a dog, auditioned when I could, performed here and there, and barely left New York. I felt like I was 100 years old, and most, if not all, of my pleasure came from slamming back glass after glass of white wine. Grüner Veltliner. Then I’d switch to whiskey.
One morning, after a particularly shitty night of waitressing followed by a jaunt to the bar, I woke up and decided I needed to leave New York. At the time I was communicating with my British friend Hana, an English teacher from London, who was also sick of her city. We decided to leave the West in January and meet up in Bangkok. I planned on staying for five weeks; she bought a one-way ticket.
We stayed in Asia for six months, making our way through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia.
Throughout the journey, I noticed that for every 10 British tourists there was one American, and the lone Yank was usually working or volunteering while the Brits happily threw back beers without worrying about what time they had to rise the next morning.
It was very common, Hana told me, for English people to take a gap year before or after university in order to get out and see the world and experience new things. I mentioned that in the States it would be hard to justify taking a year off to do nothing. Hana’s reply was short, but it floored me: “You’re not doing nothing. You’re traveling.”
The American relationships with work, leisure, and travel are very different than those of other countries, I’ve been finding. While we do have a very high standard of living here in the States, we also work like crazy, and it’s no secret that at work we get less time off for personal days or holidays than Europeans do. On average, we get two weeks off out of the year — the only chance to travel or let loose — and then back to the grindstone. There’s no room for personal development, for trial and error. In the States, for so many people, our identities are our job titles, and we’re conditioned to feel guilty when pursuing something that has nothing to do with what we do for money.
It took me about four months on the road to finally stop feeling guilty about traveling when I ‘should’ have been thinking of my career and creating a stable life for myself (after all, I’m almost 30, but that’s another story). Taking myself out of the American context for so long and surrounding myself with other travelers, nomads, and non-Americans allowed me to start creating a new context for my life, and to re-examine the ‘rules’ of life I’d previously been dealt and chose to live by. I’ve started thinking of traveling as more than something one does for pleasure; it’s also constructive — just not in a way I was used to “constructive” looking.
That long trip taught me something I’d have never learned in class and definitely not at work. It taught me I’m not my job, and resume building is really only good for your resume. And when you’re not exactly sure what you want or what you’re going to do with your life, what good is that anyways?
We Americans need to take a cue from our British friends. Taking a year off to travel isn’t going to kill us. The world as we know it won’t vanish as our plane takes flight. In fact, our world may actually expand. And that’s something that shouldn’t have to be justified to anyone.