The stereotypical ‘American traveler’ seems often to be one that is ignorant of other cultures. Our neighbors in other nations often categorize us as perhaps loud, pushy, or dumb. Personally, I do not think we are any of these things. Or rather, we do not intend to be. I don’t imagine anyone goes to a new place with the intention of being rude. Yet somehow, the stereotype of the ‘American traveler’ is still a prevalent and derogatory one.
So how did this issue first arise? I am not an expert, but I have a theory. Travel in a place such as Europe requires less distance to cross borders than in the United States, which is a much larger country than many European countries. I speculate that because a typical American family road trip could cover the same distance as a road trip in Europe, but not cross any national borders in that distance that young people are less frequently exposed to less cultural diversity in the United States. Or perhaps international travel is just not as encouraged in the States. I cannot be certain, but the unfavorable ‘American traveler’ stereotype is one that we should strive to change.
So can this issue be combated? Yes, it can. The best way for Americans to not behave like the stereotype is to first be aware that the stereotype is there at all. My experience abroad was a faculty-led expedition that took about a dozen students and I to the cloud forests of the Ecuadorian mountains. We spent the majority of our time at a biological research camp, so our interactions with people were somewhat limited. But every day we had some very nice women from the local town come and cook for the camp. They were very friendly and the food they made was fantastic. But it was a new cuisine and it did take me a little while to adjust.
I was so worried that I would say something offensive that I was too scared to ask about what we were eating. But my professor was kind enough to notice and explained that asking about someone’s cooking is not rude, so long as you do it right. Be curious and polite. Engage with people about their process and they will gladly tell you about it. With a little help in translating from one of the other scientists, I learned from these local ladies that the majority of Ecuadorian food comes from native fruits and vegetables, with limited meat and only some starches. This explained why some of the objects in the meal looked so strange: they were fruits we do not have in the States. In this way, I did not perpetuate the American stereotype and made good relationships with the people who lived there.
I urge you, if you are traveling abroad, to think about your actions. Ask yourself, “Am I overstepping my boundaries? Am I going to come off as rude if I do this? Am I representing the proud nation of America in the best way possible?” If you are unsure about any of your answers, then the best solution is not to perform the action. This does not mean that you have to be a meek little mouse the entire trip. Far from it! Have fun while you are abroad! Just be mindful, too. Do not expect everyone to speak English just because you do. Understand that the foods might seem a little weird and making faces at your plate is not good table manners. Keep in mind any cultural rules in regards to clothing. If the guide book says that shorts worn in public, by either men or women, are inappropriate, then leave them at home. Do not expect a nation to change everything just because you are there.
All of this might sound a bit harsh or tough, but that is not my intention. I have absolute faith that the wonderful students of UNCW will represent our university and our nation very well. These are just things to remember in order to make a good first impression. As for what you can do while you are there, nobody is stopping you from asking questions. If there is one thing that is puzzling you and the guidebook has no answers, ask someone. Whether it’s a new friend or a teacher, I guarantee someone will have the answer. People in other nations do not expect you, a study abroad student, to know everything yet. And frankly, most people are flattered if you ask them politely about their culture. Not as someone who feels superior, but just as someone who wants to learn more. Think about how nice it is when we as Americans are visited by foreign students and they want to learn about us. It makes us feel proud as a people and this feeling can usually be found in other nations, too.
Another lesson came during the last few days of the trip when the team got to explore Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. A bustling place with lots of foods, markets, and people. We saw tons of landmarks, including the equator line itself. There I walked along the line and let the weird gravity there affect my stride. I looked like a complete dork, but here it was okay. Standing on the actual equator is something that not many people get to do. The Ecuadorians are proud of having the line run through their land; it is actually where the nation’s name comes from. Childlike wonder is nothing to be ashamed of and, in the appropriate places, it is great to have.
In conclusion, the best ways to avoid being an American stereotype is to think before you act and to do a lot of research before you even go to the new place. Find out about the customs. Learn about things like dress and food and habits. If you do not speak the language, be sure to have a basic translation book wherever you go. Yes, in many places lots of people know English, but do not make the assumption that everyone will. If you have questions, always ask in the most polite way possible. As long as you are nice, chances are that the native people will appreciate your respect and will help you. Most importantly, always remember that you are representing all of us back here at home while you are away and making good impressions is vital. Beyond that, remember to have a lot fun and I am sure you will have the time of your life.
Majors: Education and English
Traveled to: U.S.A., Canada, Ecuador, Equatorial Line
Travel goals: South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, and Belize
Interests: Kayaking, swimming, cycling, cooking, hiking, and books
Career Goal: To do international education research in both Canada and Finland
Random Goal: To get a pilot’s license and fly a seaplane