For many years now, US citizenship has conveyed a rather dubious reputation on travelers. More than a few of us have taken steps to avoid this… sometimes going so far as to sew a Canadian flag on our backpacks. There was a time that I, like many travelers from the US, did everything I could to hide my nationality. All that has changed now.
Having lived in the Mediterranean long enough, my fashion preferences, accent and sense of propriety have all decidedly shifted. My jeans have gotten tighter, my vowels more guttural and I now consider loud noises during the siesta period to be a bit uncouth. Despite all this, I still stick out as an American – and that is okay with me.
Maybe it is my distinct “swagger,” as more than a few friends have noted. Maybe I still talk too loudly. Maybe I simply look the part. Whatever the case, I “seem very American.” I have successfully hidden this in the past, but no more do I attempt to do so.
What made me change my mind?
I realized that we each have the opportunity to be cultural ambassadors while traveling. I used to believe that being a “world citizen” meant to be of indistinguishable origins. Now I think that it means you are aware of, and respectful of, the many different peoples of the world.
We live in such a politically correct society that anything which sounds remotely like a “stereotype” is detested. But the truth is that we are all very different, and the culture we came from plays a large role in determining how we are. Better to embrace this fact and share your culture with others than to repress your personality.
I have discussed the hatred of Nicolas Sarkozy in France and the repression of free speech in China (with natives and in the local language… I don’t recommend the latter subject unless you enjoy dealing with Chinese police, but that is a story for another time). I have been told that it is not polite to discuss politics, but I find it to be an interesting topic. One universal truth seems to be that nobody is ever quite happy with his or her politicians, so I often poke fun at my own country’s policy.
I have mentioned before that I employ a lot of self-deprecating humor. It works wonders as an ice-breaker and shows people that you are open minded and will not be easily offended. Doing this with your nationality is doubly effective exactly because of stereotypes. When I mock an American accent or infer that we are overly aggressive in foreign policy, people see that I understand how others view us but refuse to be ashamed of what I am.
With new friends, over time, the walls fall away and it becomes a compliment to be “the American.” In the last two months I have met only a couple other Americans (and maybe a couple dozen in the past year). Because I am off the beaten trail of where my countrymen travel I have a diverse group of friends.
As I am writing this article I am sitting in the airport to leave France and head to Sweden. Here my friends were comprised of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Canadian, Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, Moroccan, Polish, Japanese, English and (of course) French people. Naturally each of us had a distinct personality – sometimes it meshed with what I knew previously of the country, and sometimes it defied it. But just last night, as I was preparing to leave, one of my closest friends here paid me one of the best compliments I have ever received.
I have to thank you because you have really changed how I think about and view Americans.
To me, that is the ultimate accomplishment of travel. Learning languages is great, as is sightseeing and taking photos, but at the end of the day we are all cultural ambassadors.
Have you embraced your origins, hidden them, or are you indifferent? Do you feel the reputation of your country hinders your travels or helps them? Let me know below!