When I travel to a foreign country I want to meet local people, taste local food, listen to local music, and read the local newspapers. When I meet people in another country from a different culture who speak a different language then – over time – I begin to understand what distinguishes us as well as what unites us in similarity.
One of my friends prefers to travel in a foreign country with fellow foreigners. It’s all part of the experience – sharing and comparing the exploration and discovery with fellow explorers and discoverers.
So he’ll schedule one- and two-day trips with fellow backpackers, and at night over beers back at the hostel he will tell me what they saw and learned. Admittedly, it is often more interesting than what I learned in my newspapers and erratic conversations in Pidgin English with random folk on the street and in cafes.
Neither way of traveling is more right or more righteous than the other, and he often learns more from foreign guides than I do talking to locals who haven’t given much thought about where their community fits in the larger world. Still, when it comes to understanding a foreign place, culture, issue, or community, I prefer to go to the source.
When Global Voices first began in June 2005 it was little more than a single blog with a single author – Paul Frankenstein – who published daily link-logs (like this one) to what bloggers around the world were writing about. A few weeks later I joined Paul in the daily “global blog roundup”, with a specific focus on the Latin American blogosphere. I was the first of what we would come to call “regional editors”. We now have 10 regional editors, 10 language editors, three subject editors, and a daily digest editor. We also have 130 active authors and even more active translators based all around the world:
But back in 2005 when we were still trying to set an editorial policy (not to mention a tone), a contentious discussion arose over whether or not we should be linking to posts and photographs by bloggers who were not from the country they were writing about. The discussion arose after Paul published a photograph of a Bhutanese child which was taken by a Western traveler and uploaded to Flickr. Rebecca objected. Global Voices was to be a site which amplified the analysis, opinion, and observations of local voices from around the non-Western world, she argued. It was not meant to amplify the writing and photography of Western travelers to those places.
It now surprises me that I disagreed with her. At the time there were no Bhutanese bloggers. (Today there are.) I argued that we should focus on content over who produced the content and I tried to complicate the issue by pointing out that we frequently linked to diaspora bloggers as well as immigrants to non-Western countries. (There was no issue, for example, when I linked to a Mexican blogger living in Argentina.)
Over the years Global Voices authors have pointed to plenty of bloggers who write about – but are not from – non-Western countries. Like Peace Corps volunteers and foreign correspondents. They tend to write for a Western audience or at least through a lens that a Western (and to some extent, international) audience can easily relate to.
Today David Evan Harris of Global Lives pointed me to Glimpse.org, a new blog platform sponsored by the National Geographic Society which, in the words of a press release, “features written stories, photography, insider tips, and blogs created by young Americans living overseas.” It is a pretty sexy website with headlines like “A Hipster’s Adventures in Swaziland” “My Chinese Girlfriend Really Wants to Come to America“, and “The Three Rules of Spanish Courtship (For American Women).”
Glimpse’s mission is to share stories from abroad that encourage readers to understand and care about other cultures, changing the way young Americans think about the overseas experience and
challenging them to explore the world. Supported in part by National Geographic Society, Glimpse looks beneath the surface of everyday life abroad by providing a forum where internationally minded youth can share their experiences and connect. 1
In other words, it provides a platform for Americans to learn about the rest of the world from other Americans. Which is great. I mean, there is never reason to complain about more information when we can so easily ignore it. But isn’t one of the most amazing qualities of the internet that – at least hypothetically – we can learn about other countries from their own countrymen and women? It takes a lot of work – translation, attention, and intention – but the possibilities are out there and many of us have now developed as many friendships outside of our country as within its borders.
It’s not that I’m against travel writing. Many of my friends and favorite wordsmiths are travel writers. In fact, I sometimes dabble in it myself. It’s just that these days, isn’t time that we stop talking about foreign places and people and start talking with them?