Instead of becoming a teacher, I decided to move into my van and travel through various countries and cultures. Was this an irresponsible decision, was I failing to fulfill my obligation to make society better somehow? Or does traveling contribute too, just in a more unconventional way? A discussion on social responsibility.

I studied to be a teacher, as I have mentioned before on this blog. Teaching is a noble profession – often for a less-than-deserved salary, people like me spend hours every day trying to inspire often less-than-motivated kids to think learning is cool and instill a reliable work ethic. Despite many years of study, however, I never got around to a full-time teaching position; we left for our trip directly after I had received my Masters of Education in Germany.

The decision not to teach

Me and my completed thesis (December 2015)

It was a conscious decision to not become a full-time teacher. I wasn’t 100% sure, even after years of study, if that was what I wanted to do. I have a lot of friends who I went to school with who are now teachers, and many of them are continually stressed and are often not particularly satisfied with their current position, students, or faculty. This did not do a lot to heighten my motivation – I am particularly prone to stress in situations concerning my performance, and I didn’t like the prospect of a career that heavily consisted of looking forward to my next summer vacation.

This conscious choice, to move into a van and travel full-time instead of becoming a professional teacher, was received very graciously, even celebratory, by friends and family. They were supportive, they were understanding, a luxury that not all vanlifers have. Most people knew me well enough to know that this is something that made sense, that I would love to do, a context I could bloom in.

However, there were sometimes choice remarks, meant more jokingly than not, that were more critical of my decision. One teacher friend, teasing, called me an “Aussteiger”, which translates to a “drop-out” or an “opt-outer”. What he meant was that I was stepping out of my role in society, isolating myself. I was living for myself, not playing a part in the bigger picture. Instead of doing something meaningful, like being a teacher and influencing kids’ lives, I was doing something selfish that was, therefore – following this train of thought – meaningless.

Was I failing the subject of social responsibility?

Is this trip irresponsible? I have pondered this question again and again while gazing at mountains, or feeling the rain pounding down on the top of the Bus, or staring at the campfire. Was this correct? Had I made a choice that separated me from the rest of society, had I decided not to fulfill my moral obligation to give back, considering I had the privilege of training, education, and language? Was I failing to fulfill the obligation of social responsibility?

Teaching is clearly a more direct, intense, and traditional way of fulfilling this obligation. I do not need to explain to you the benefits of teachers and education to our society; I think we’re all pretty much agreed on that one. Of the two choices – driving the Panamerican Highway or becoming a teacher – teaching is obviously the one that directly influences the lives of others for the future in a positive way.

But did that mean that what I was doing didn’t play a role, didn’t count? Was it a bad thing, because I was doing something selfish that didn’t use my skills to the highest degree to help others? Or was it a good thing, because I was determined enough to mold my skills to a different pattern and use them to make myself happy?

Which brings us to the root of this discussion: are travel and vanlife things that arise out of selfishness – and if so, is that a bad thing – or do we see other purposes behind the life that we have chosen? Why was traveling important to me in the first place?

Cultural exchange and intercultural communication

We have stressed that this trip came about due to two major factors: that we wanted to live in Big Emma, and because one of our major passions is travel. But I should rephrase that, to be as clear as possible: one of our major passions is cultural exchange. Meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, understanding different ways of doing things, trading ideas about different ways to live life and be in the world.

Intercultural communication is a big keyword here. Intercultural communication is communicating with others from cultures that are different than your own (duh.) and is much more complex than it sounds. You do it any time you interact with someone from a foreign culture. Misunderstandings, for example, often result from poor intercultural communication. I know my definition sounds rather academic – after all, it was one of the three topics in my final oral exam to get my teaching degree, next to talking about my thesis.

Anyways, this is what we are really into. Seeing places in foreign countries is cool, but interacting with those you find there is the golden egg. The best way, in my opinion, to foster intercultural communication is to get out there and talk to people, in whatever language is available to you. Trade ideas, ways of life, habits, things that you think are weird or normal. Learning from people. Showing them ideas that come from me and my culture, understanding and adopting ones that come from theirs. Experiencing, raw and first hand, that people are simply people, no matter where they come from, what language they speak, what they look like or what they like to eat for dinner. This is why I love to travel.

A positive role in society, vanlife-style

And let’s extend this idea for a second. We haven’t entered Central or South America yet. When we do, everything will be in Spanish, everything will be very Latino, and intercultural communication will become one of the most important pillars of our daily lives, for years to come. I can’t wait. So far, our entire trip, over six months of travel, has only taken place in the United States and Canada, cultures we consider to be very close to home.

camping

Camping with HVAdventure in Joshua Tree

There are, of course, cultural aspects in these regions to experience and discover as well – and we do – but they are harder to see, less obvious than in other countries. But here, traveling like this, the principle behind cultural exchange still applies – we meet so many people, many more than we ever would at home, who are different from us, with different life stories, different backgrounds, and who like to eat different things for dinner than we do. It is not 100% intercultural, but cultural it is. We still learn about people, life, and understanding of the other, and people learn this from us in return.

And there you have my answer. I don’t think that my method is as obvious as it would be if I was a full-time teacher now in Germany. But I do think what we do is a first-hand way of experiencing and fostering intercultural communication and cultural exchange. And I think that makes the world better, in small, often unnoticed ways.

Instead of making a positive impact in a conventional manner, we have figured out a different way of doing things. But we do make a positive impact. We play our part, and even if it is small, it is important. And who knows? Maybe I will become a full-time teacher when this is all over, after all.

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About Author

RegularEmma
Emma is a writer, traveler, and teacher. She co-runs this blog and is currently traveling in her VW Bus "Big Emma" from Alaska to Argentina. She loves everything colorful and occasionally licks a rock. She doesn't believe in mustard.

9 Comments

  1. No matter what you do, you are a teacher. No matter where you go, you are a teacher. You are not irresponsible at all. Love your life and enjoy your journey!

  2. hi ! since i red this post in your blog , my mind is full of thoughts … my way of thinking is: you’re young – you finished your degree … if you don’t follow your dreams now, you’ll never do! you don’t ‘only’ travel – you LIVE travelling! in the best way even you can do ! beeing free in time, doing what you want to do, going always the direction you are thinking about – this is freedom in your heart ! what’s coming up one time – the flow will show … believe in that: what should happens – will happens! enjoy ! sending much love and safe travel from heidi (kim’s mum 🙂 )

    • RegularEmma

      Thank you Heidi! That is very kind of you to write 🙂 I will do my best to try – and I can always continue teaching later. We send much love back from the road!

  3. My darling girl–Without question your decision to travel, rather than jumping right into a career, is admirable. I admire the courage this trip has taken. Of course I worry every day…that will never change until I take my last breath. But watching you celebrate humanity has been a great gift for me. I wonder if I had any contribution to your insight & integrity to the world. I hope I did. Regardless the only goal parents should have is to push the little ones out of the nest & watch them fly. When your babies take their place in the world–that is the celebration. And your writing–it takes my breath away & perhaps pursuing writing will be one of the long term outcomes from this trip. Your voice as a writer is strong & clear. Literally I have followed you around the world learning about places I never even imagined. Now I am following you in spirit but still learning from you & your experiences. Keep trail blazing the world, my love. Keep writing. Mostly be safe & know that I love you more than words can say. I miss you every day. Lucky me to love someone that much!

    • these words can ‘only’ write a mum ❤ loving her kid … being proud of everything the baby’s doing! i’ve tears in my eyes… ’cause i’m also a very much loving proud mum ❤❤

  4. I love everything about this – your choices are heart based for what’s right for you and your family! And I agree w the first comment, you are a teacher in a lot of those moments. The biggest one that I can see…showing your child that there is a different way to live.

    My husband and I live in our converted 1959 International Harvestor! Parked on his parents property, but heads out on adventures with us often! Her name is Primrose ❤

    • RegularEmma

      Hello Karin! Thank you for your comment, it is great hearing your thoughts on it all 🙂 And its great to hear you are also living in your vehicle! Especially such an old one, that’s awesome!! I just took a quick look at your website. Do you guys live in Bend? We were there for about a week in October and loved it!

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