In Praise of the Gap Year…

The Daily Telegraph has been having fun linking the Occupy London protest to this infamous Gap Yah video (nearly 4 million hits):

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube Direkt

For the DT, there seem to be only three sorts of lefties: pork-scratching-munching union throwbacks who undeservedly dodged the Maggie bullet to survive the eighties; flaky, granola-stuffed Guardianistas; and over-privileged young trustafarians for whom ‘social justice’ is just another Facebook boast – or a fleeting gap year concern.

No wonder students who’ve been on gap years are more shy than ever about bringing the fact up in class – wincing as they mention it, as if expecting someone to burst out laughing or throw a shoe at them.

I’d like to defend the idea of a gap year. I didn’t have one myself (parental pressure: Mum worried she wouldn’t be able to boast about her son being at university if instead he ended up handcuffed to a radiator in Columbia). But spending a couple of years in Japan a little while later it struck me that nothing cuts you and your own culture down to size like truly struggling abroad.

Occupy London

As all students of Japanese learn at some point, usually in painfully embarrassing ways, communication and relationship are not mainly about words, but about the particular ways of thinking, feeling and intuiting that underlie the use of those words. It’s fine to appreciate all that in theory, but to really feel it you need to crack a joke and have people look at you as though you’re mad; or to find out, day by day, that all the little signals that usually communicate ‘you’ to the world around – manner, clothes, tone of voice, choice of words – are now ineffective, or they keep getting scrambled.

Finding that so much of yourself can’t be communicated accurately any longer makes you wonder just how little of ‘you’ there might really be underneath all those now-useless cultural signs and signals.

It’s not always an intellectual ‘a-ha’ moment, so much as a get-me-on-the-next-flight-out one. I’m told the UN arranges leave for people on overseas postings at about the ten-month mark, since this is when potentially debilitating ‘culture shock’ most often sets in.

So although the self-indulgence and faux maturity that the DT likes to laugh at has its basis in reality, and lying on a beach in Thailand rarely throws up existential challenges, there’s still the possibility for a gap year – at any time of life, surely – to let us start taking this ‘self’ a little bit less seriously. We may not be able to strip away our culture, but can we begin to see it for what it is?



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  • Dad
    November 2, 2011 - 9:04 am | Permalink

    Another very thoughtful piece. Well done.

  • Dad
    November 2, 2011 - 9:11 am | Permalink

    I didn’t watch the video until later. Very funny!

  • Chris
    November 2, 2011 - 9:16 am | Permalink

    Cheers! Nice to know family are keeping an eye on the blog…!

  • November 5, 2011 - 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that I agree with you here. I’ve always found the “gap year” a uniquely British idea, but only in its social-cultural implications here. I think for Americans, a “year abroad” is more familiar, and usually in the context of studying, meaning you study abroad as part of a university degree. But beyond those divisions, I think your notion of allowing travel to other countries and cultures (and not even necessarily the traditionally “exotic” ones) to open up our understanding of our “self” and our own culture is dead on. At any stage in life, heading out of our own cultural, physical & geographic comfort zone(s) can be positively challenging. Moving past a stereotypical imagining of “trustafarians” is certainly a worthy pursuit.

  • Thomas Monaghan
    November 6, 2011 - 9:24 am | Permalink

    Nice to read a defence of the gap year! I did one – half a year earning money, half a year teaching in India. I felt like I got a lot out of spending time in a different culture which had always interested me on an intellectual level (as well as the fun of having to deal with all the personal challenges). However, just saying this makes me feel pretentious and it’s true that sometimes you have to defend yourself from the ‘self-righteous trustafarian’ accusation when you get back!

    However, I’d like to think that many people who have spent time abroad come back and continue their interest in the places they’ve been (taking a language or history course, for example). Weirdly, I found just as much ‘culture shock’ spending a year in Spain as I did in (much less familiar) India, which suggests to me that what is really interesting is a clashing and mixing up of cultures (or traditions, histories, imagined identities) generally rather than any degree of ‘exoticness’ to come home and show off about. And surely studying history, whether it’s the British Raj or 17th Century England or the fall of Rome, is all about this clashing and mixing up of different world views and identities?

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