Foreign Policy

Five Big Trends I Saw Travelling Around the World

By Barbara F. Walter

Last spring I had the chance to travel around the world. Mostly in the developing world, and mostly in countries that have experienced political violence at one time in their history. I brought my husband and nine year old daughter because, let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to travel to these places? Our path traced a lazy circle around the globe: Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf, Jordan, Israel, London, Northern Ireland, New York, and Ecuador, then, finally, back to Los Angeles. One of the interesting things about long-term travel is that you begin to see patterns across continents and get a sense of global forces at play. Here are five of these patterns that surprised me:

  1. The world has officially converged on English. Not only that, but English with an American accent appears to have become the new status symbol. Even in remote parts of Myanmar, villagers were learning English. Wealthy Sri Lankan families celebrating a family event at a restaurant spoke English to each other. So did Chinese families in Hong Kong, Malaysian families in Malaysia. Makes one wonder if having your children learn Mandarin is the best use of their time.
  2. That is, everywhere except Latin America. There we couldn’t find a single desk clerk or waiter who could speak English — the frantic push to learn English that we saw everywhere else in the world is absent in Latin America. Español, anyone?
  3. The rest of the world will soon be as fat as today’s Americans are. One of the great things about travelling in less developed countries is the outdoor markets that would make even the most satisfied Whole Foods shopper cry — sob, in fact, at what we are missing here. Still, I’ve never seen so many advertisements for McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so many people thrilled at the possibility of eating there. Americans aren’t fat because we’re less disciplined than the rest of the world. We’re fat because we’re the first to ride the wave of cheap fried food.
  4. Having lots of oil completely screws up a society. I don’t even know where to start.
  5. Women are completely absent from commerce and invisible on the street in large areas of the globe. We went weeks without ever interacting with a woman in a shop, restaurant, or business. The implications were both simple and profound.

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  • Women absent from commerce and the street is not my experience from Southeast and East Asia at all. And English is definitely the lingua franca, even more than before, but bear in mind all places you mentioned were former British colonies… except Ecuador.

  • In 2009 I spent some time in Chile, and noticed the lack of English speakers as well. In contrast to Ecuador, Chile is a country with a history of commercial contact with British culture. Low interest in English seems to be a trait across Latin America, at least in my (limited!) personal experience.

  • Interesting post. One quibble, though: “Americans aren’t fat because we’re less disciplined than the rest of the world. We’re fat because we’re the first to ride the wave of cheap fried food.”

    This unfortunately deflects attention from the degree of responsibility American corporations may be said to have in diffusing “cheap fried food” around the world via McDonalds, KFC and others (as you note.)

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