On being an American abroad

Fat. Entitled. Unworldly. Gun-crazy. Obnoxiously religious. War-mongering.

Many Americans are all too aware of our stereotypes on a global scale, and often this manifests in many taking an apologetic stance in their country of origin, especially while traveling.

There’s a common practice among Canadian travelers to sew a maple leaf or Canadian flag patch onto backpacks to avoid being mistaken as being their neighbors to the south.

I’ll admit, I used to be one of these people. Now, I couldn’t feel more different.

Stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. 

Are there Americans who go abroad, flaunting their fanny packs upon their protruding girths while loudly complaining in front of natives about lack of free ketchup or other American-style amenities? Certainly.

But aside from one intoxicated breakdown last summer in which I expressed my extreme distress over a lack of accessible public restrooms, I think I’ve managed to avoid the unsavory American stereotype throughout my travels.

I dress a little nicer, speak a little softer and try to learn the language. I meet the locals. I try new things, and I try not to complain.

And it’s not just me. While I don’t know how they behave at home, nearly every fellow American I’ve met while traveling has been adventurous, pleasant and friendly. In my opinion, Americans tend to have a certain charm that perhaps stems from our culture’s heavy emphasis on small talk or our penchant for flashing our pearly whites as much as possible. Meeting a fellow American abroad is like being engulfed in a giant hug of friendliness that automatically transports you back to the comfort and familiarity of Fourth of July barbecues, Super Bowl parties and late night runs to 24-hour 

convenience stores.

People I knew studying in Germany complimented the Americans in our friend circle on our smiles, our ability to talk with strangers and our general optimism and positivity. One good friend of mine constantly praised the American spirit of adventure. And though I used to bash my heritage in hopes it would help me fit in with people that didn’t agree with our government’s policies, I’ve learned to be proud of our country’s accomplishments and the things that make our culture unique and admirable. The longer I stay away, the more I miss it.

Once, at a hostel in Amsterdam, my friends and I were lugging our bags up the stairs behind a group of fellow travelers.

“Where are you from?” they asked.

“The United States,” we replied. “How about you?”

“We are from Iran — your best friends.”

The fact that these nice young men felt we may have had some preconceived notions about them based on their country of origin hurt me and made me contemplate the relationship between people and their countries of birth.

People are not their governments.

I may not agree with every action of the U.S. government, and I will discuss this openly with my friends abroad if prompted, but I no longer feel the need to make it a topic of conversation so that I am able to defend myself from preconceived notions, which may or may not exist in their minds.

One of my favorite people I met traveling last summer is a staunch Putin supporter, and my host dad in Ecuador was a firm supporter of President Rafael Correa, who takes a similar role on censorship. 

As someone who cares deeply about human rights, I never once judged them for their political persuasions.

People are not their governments, and people are not their political views. 

Next time you’re abroad or interacting with someone from a different country, assume they realize this too, and instead of negatively bemoaning your country, be proud and show them the best it has to offer. Embrace them with an American smile, an American hug and some American positivity.


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