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Transitions Abroad Thirty Years On

The magazine founder and publisher offers his perspective on how travel and travelers have changed over the past three decades

by Clay Hubbs. Ph.D.

Clay Hubbs enjoying wine in Italy.
Founding editor and publisher Clay Hubbs enjoying some local wine in a cafe at his adopted hilltop village in Tuscany.

In 1977 I introduced the first issue of Transitions Abroad magazine by describing our intended readers as “non-touring travelers” for whom learning — about the world and about themselves — was the principal reason for going abroad.

In the same issue Gary Langer, then a student at the Univ. of New Hampshire, wrote about his stay at the Jerusalem guesthouse of an eccentric Armenian. Only travelers stay at Mr. A’s, wrote Langer; tourists do not.

“The distinction is simple: Tourists are those who bring their homes with them wherever they go and apply them to whatever they see. . . . Travelers left home at home at home, bringing only themselves and a desire to see and hear and feel and take in and grow and learn.”

Since that time the traveler/tourist distinction has become something of a cliché, one that taken literally makes no sense. Outside our own country we are all seen as tourists; even we use the word tourist to describe the “other guy.” What distinguishes one tourist from another is how we travel, not where or even why. What distinguishes Transitions Abroad readers from the other guy is a desire to learn from our hosts, openness to change, and a desire to share life's pleasures.

The purpose of the magazine was never to tell readers how to behave abroad but rather to provide the detailed information they need to enable them to meet people of other countries, to speak their language, to immerse themselves in their culture, and thereby to “transition” to a new level of understanding and appreciation of our common humanity. The title, “Transitions,” was meant to suggest the changes in our perspective that result when we get away from the tour bus and beyond the postcards.

London's Calling

A few weeks ago the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was the BBC calling from London. They wanted to interview me about a story that was making the rounds on the Internet. Big U.S. companies, fearing anti-U.S. backlash, were teaming up to offer advice on how to improve the behavior of business travelers overseas.

At first I didn’t see the connection between Transitions Abroad and the behavior of business travelers. Then I saw that this was an extension of the traveler/tourist distinction.

“We are broadly seen throughout the world as an arrogant people, totally self-absorbed and loud,” said Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide Inc., who heads up the effort to combat anti-U.S. sentiment abroad through a group called Business for Diplomatic Action, Inc.

The producer of the BBC radio talk show wanted me to talk about the “Ugly American” and how the behavior and the image of Americans abroad has changed over the past decades.

The "Ugly American" Myth and Conundrum

I’ve traveled abroad at least once a year since the 1950s and lived abroad for varying lengths of time. From what I’ve seen I’m not convinced that Americans’ behavior is any worse than that of other nationalities. But because of our physical isolation and poor public education we perhaps are more naïve than the average European traveler. And in our naiveté we may sometimes draw attention to ourselves.

The BBC reporter gave me a few hours to think about my response before calling back. During that time I reflected on how travel and travelers have changed over the past half-century.

In the decade or so after the end of World War II I saw the worst examples of “Ugly American” behavior. America had won the war. Those Americans who stayed behind to help in the rebuilding of a devastated European continent often did not seem ready to give their hosts credit for their help in bringing the war to an end and the price they had paid in the process. Americans often behaved like conquering heroes. “How much is that in real money?!” is just one example of the arrogant and ignorant behavior I witnessed.

The sixties revolution brought hoards of young people (including me and my wife in 1963) on pilgrimages to the East. We made our trip in a VW bus across North Africa and the Middle East to India, following the path of Alexander the Great. Rather than being arrogant, our generation was awed by all the “culture” we found in Europe and beyond. As my wife and I went deeper into the Arab world we gradually realized how limited and distorted by cultural bias our perception of the world had been. From a guard at the abandoned site of Persepolis we learned that our hero Alexander was remembered locally as a destroyer of a great empire.

Clay Hubbs with family 1964.
With his family in 1964 after returning from years of adventures in
England, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

The ‘70s and ‘80s were marked by a boom in mass tourism and packaged tours. In the mid-‘70s my family and I took an extended sabbatical in the South of France. Every week I went to Monte Carlo for a French lesson (while my already-fluent family ate pastries underneath the window of my language lab).

After my classes we walked over to the famous hotel-casino and got to know some of guests. It turned out that many of them were there for a 1-week gambling vacation. They were picked up at the Nice airport and bussed to the hotel and at the end of the week bussed back. Many never left the hotel, yet they boasted that they had been abroad.

How to Best Disseminate Information?

I was convinced that the major reason that so many people were traveling in groups was the lack of easily available information on how to travel on their own. During that same year we learned how hard it was to find information on schools for our children, and, when we decided we wanted to extend our stay by finding jobs, how difficult it was to find information on overseas employment.

That was when I decided to start Transitions Abroad. Our first task was to collect information and evaluate it. What were the best resources (information sources) for work, study, travel, and living abroad? To do this I contacted the top authorities in the four fields and asked them for their selections. This was an ongoing task; we updated — and, with the help of our contributing editors, continue to update — the lists each year.

The next job was to make this information available to as many people as possible who could use it. Before the advent of the Internet this — like the compiling and updating of the “Best of” lists — was not easy. But largely by word of mouth more and more people found us. And once we had a substantial readership, we had our major source of contributors — our own subscribers. Soon a large portion of each issue was devoted to “participant reports,” first-hand accounts of how individual readers succeeded in finding the work, study, travel, or living programs best suited to their needs — or, more frequently, used the magazine’s resources to create them themselves.

To return to the traveler/tourist dichotomy: the one thing that distinguishes Transitions travelers from ordinary tourists is that they travel for a purpose other than simply diversion or escape.

The Impact of 9/11

And to return to the question of how the behavior and the perception of Americans abroad has changed in recent years, it’s clear that the ugly American label only reappeared after our country’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. After 9/11 we saw a worldwide expression of sympathy and support (“We are all Americans now,” proclaimed France’s leading daily.). Americans already abroad and students who flocked after them were treated warmly.

But now all that has changed. For a time anti-Americanism focused on government policies and the world held Americans in higher esteem than America, according to America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked (Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, Times Books, 2006). But now foreigners are “increasingly equating the U.S. people and the U.S. government.” According to polls conducted by Kohut and Stokes, “the American people, as opposed to some of their leaders, seek no converts to their ideology”; we are not cultural imperialists. What we are guilty of, write Kohut and Stokes, is indifference to global issues. In general, Americans have “an inattentive self-centeredness unmindful of their country’s deepening linkages with other countries.”

Kohut’s and Stones’ assessment is a dark one — one that I believe the readers of Transitions Abroad do not share. Time and time again in our pages readers describe not only the changes in their perception of the world as a result of their travel but ways they have become involved in making positive contributions to the situations in which they found themselves — either through volunteer work or direct financial contributions.

A Vision for a Positive Future

Kohut and Stokes measured the opinion of Americans on the part of the rest of the world and the attentiveness of Americans toward other countries at what must be a low point for both. If their polls could project into the future the picture would surely be quite different. In the first place, that reservoir of good will toward Americans (as opposed to our present government) is not gone. On this side, a new generation of young people rushed to sign up for study abroad as a result of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror.” Even larger numbers are traveling on their own. In the next 30 years I predict a remarkable transformation in ordinary Americans’ engagement with the rest of the world, partly in reaction to the present (2006) government’s arrogance and willed ignorance.

Transitions Abroad will continue to point the way toward positive change through travel — not just change in individual perceptions but putting what has been learned to use to make the world a better place for all of us.

Dr. Clay A. Hubbs was Transitions Abroad's original founder, editor, and publisher.

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