A year ago, I met a boy in Cambodia who could belt out “Since You’ve Been Gone” just as powerfully as Kelly Clarkson herself. He did it with a smile and a satisfaction that told you he knew how good he was.
He was an employee at a convenience store on the notorious party island, Koh Rong. Pardon me, he was the employee at the convenience store. He had come from the north of Cambodia where there were few job prospects and had found himself gainful employment on the island. The owners of the little beachfront store left him to singing songs from the west while he worked all day every day, selling beer and mosquito repellent to westerners who came and went as quickly as the tide changed.
He snapped his singing to an abrupt stop and started chatting animatedly when I stepped up to the cash register. I discovered he wanted to go to Rome and make a new life for himself in the glittering gem of the west.
I told him, naively, “Cool! You should go. It’s really nice there.”
The story continued. He wanted to go there because he’d seen pictures and thought it was beautiful. He wanted to learn Italian and become a famous designer. He laid out these ambitions like he was discussing the storyline of his favorite show; something real in his mind but intangible from behind the counter of the convenience store.
As the story spooled out, I could see visible cracks in the plot. He worked endlessly at the convenience store and sent every cent he earned to his family in the north. The owners of the store provided him with accommodation and food, so he never had to spend a penny, even if he had any. He had never even seen the other side of the island that he now called home.
After I had paid for my water bottle, I booked it to catch the boat back to the mainland. I was off to a new adventure; I could go wherever I wanted and do whatever my heart desired. I was free; a citizen of the world, so to speak.
But the more I travel, the more I realize that the only thing that makes me a citizen of the world is my American passport. My passport is a skeleton key, able to open nearly every door on the planet. For others, their passports are more akin to an ankle monitor, designed to keep them where they are.
I’ve seen it many times since then. Introducing myself to a goat herder in southern India, he proclaims his honor at having an American standing in his goat field. In Nepal, a man’s eyes light up at the mention of my origins and swears he will one day make it to the land of the free. On buses in South America, the immigration police ask for everyone’s papers, but their eyes slip right over my fair hair and skin. I am a world citizen because of circumstance.
Mainly I am a world citizen because I am an American citizen. The concept has changed for me over the past year, starting out as an undeniable fact of life; this is where I come from, these are my roots, this is who I am. Over time, I’ve watched the fact of my citizenship closely, as if it were an entity of its own, which is sometimes how it feels. Out in the great big world, the concept of citizenship blurs around the edges, like saying a word repeatedly until it loses all meaning. But sometimes the recognition that I’m an American, instead of an individual in the world, snaps up at me out of the clear blue sky, and I remember everything that it means.
It means I can travel nearly anywhere in the world either without a visa, or with very few visa requirements. It means that me and my spending power are welcomed with open arms across almost every border without a question. It means I get to be a world citizen if I so choose.
I haven’t stopped traveling because of this. The truth is, I still glow when someone asks me how long I’m traveling for and I can say, “I don’t know.” These three words carry with them the weight of new unknown adventures as vast and limitless as the horizons that I strive toward. The not knowing is an incredible freedom. It’s acknowledging that I will be welcomed in nearly every corner of the world, like all those corners simply make up the cozy shape of my living room. Every place is my home and I feel at home everywhere.
But every time I head off into the horizon, my departure underscores the differences between myself and the people that I leave behind, and I realize that as much power as I have to be able to traverse the globe, I’m powerless to give this opportunity to others. As a community of global wanderers, we need to take notice of this, and remember what a powerful, unique, and privileged thing it is to be able to call home wherever we put our backpacks down.
This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week one: Global Citizenship.