Are gap years a form of colonialism?

Some people argue that gap years – typically a period when a student takes a break between school and college or university, often to visit a foreign country – is a form of colonialism. This colonialism, they argue, is not in the form of acquiring, exploiting and expanding into other people’s land like the old days – but through young, western people going to underdeveloped countries for a period of time at the expense of the host communities.

Gap year participants often take part in projects such as: building schools, working in orphanages, health clinics, or teaching English.  But are some inadvertently colonising? Harry, an English literature student at a London university, who went to Asia recently to teach English, seems to think so.

“From what I saw first hand, a lot of the expats that were teaching over there were empathetic people with a desire to make some kind of positive change in the world,” he says. “However, the more rewarding career opportunities out there obviously seem to require a certain level of proficiency in the English language, and it definitely hit me hard when I was travelling that language, as a basic form of communication, is the simplest yet one of the strongest forms of colonialism,” he adds.

Due to the popularity of gap years over the past decade, it has become a big business, worth billions in the western countries. A report by the think-tank Demos, showed that there are as many as 85 specialist gap year providers in the UK, which send 50,000 young people away each year.

Problems only arise when we perceive there to be a dichotomy between “us” and “them”, or that “they” need our help, or the West knows what is best for the East.

The late Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot – who led the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, in order to cleanse his nation of all external influence, from the English language to Western intellectuals, to recreate the sense of heritage and national pride – may be turning in his grave right now. Why? Because there’s been an influx of volunteers in Cambodia, according to Harry, who noticed this on his trip to Asia.

“The influx of volunteers in Cambodia certainly could be seen as a form of mental colonialism. I would say it is accentuating the cultural imperialism that already exists in these third world countries,” he says.

The British Empire officially ended in 1997 with the political transfer of Hong Kong to China. Yet a bitter aftertaste of our colonial legacy persists. Britain’s colonial past means that whenever some of us travel to an underdeveloped country we are carrying baggage situated in a specific history. We must remember that. Gap years should produce reciprocal benefits, both for the volunteer/explorer and the community they visit. At the very least, gap years help to spread an understanding of world cultures on both sides. Just something to think about…

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