Before I ever stepped foot overseas or even had much of a desire to travel very far, I was forced to watch the film adaptation of the book The Ugly American. I had enrolled in a political film class (huge real-world value there..) at Arizona State University and The Ugly American was probably the film I least looked forward to on the semester’s schedule.
Truthfully, I didn’t know much about it but given when the movie was made and the not-so-subtle political bent of this particular class, I knew I was in for some good ole’ fashioned America-bashing. Which isn’t always undeserved, but I was getting lethal doses of it on a daily basis.
Not going in with an open mind at all, I of course came out of the movie unhappy. “There’s no way Americans abroad would act that way,” I thought to myself. It just didn’t make sense. I didn’t know anyone who would behave like that. We had plenty of immigrants at our school and no one treated them with anything but the utmost respect from what I saw. I didn’t see any reason why that would suddenly change if we were on their home turf.
And then I went overseas
First stop, China. But now several years later I’ve touched half of Southeast Asia.
Conclusion? Some Westerners who go overseas are certified jerks. That goes for Europeans as well. For too many Westerners abroad, the drunken, loud, disrespectful stereotype rings true. I’m not saying it’s 100%, I’m not even say it’s a majority of Westerners, but it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch in the eyes of a non-Westerner.
You might be able to say to yourself, “But not everyone in the West is like that, I know because I live there.” Well guess what? They don’t live there. So the jerks are all they know.
In the novel, this phenomenon is detailed with amazing if not depressing accuracy: ”For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.”
(You can insert “Westerner” and “The West” every time it specifies Americans or America because it applies to more than just the U.S.)
So when you travel, travel well. Whenever possible, conduct yourself as if you’re at Grandma’s house and you’re all too familiar with Grandpa’s belt. When in doubt, here’s five rules to live by:
- Kill ‘em with kindness – Chances are you’re traveling to a place where foreigners have already scorched the earth with cultural offenses. And even if it’s virgin territory, you’re presumed to be Patrick Batemen from the film American Psycho because that’s the extent of their exposure to the West. Be gentle and polite as can be. For guys, practice chivalry. It might be a dying art in the West but it speaks volumes about your character abroad. Practice your inner Boy or Girl Scout and we might be able to spend a few billion less bribing countries not to hate us. Blow them away and leave them with no way to think Westerners are anything but angels.
- Learn the language – Even just a little bit. Your pathetic attempt to speak their language sends a message saying “This is your home and I’m trying to be respectful of how you communicate.” There’s no faster way to make friends.
- TRY WEIRD FOODS – When did we become such WIMPS in this area? I presume it started when eating sugar-coated chunks of gluten floating in nutritionally-zapped milk became a breakfast staple, but I digress. If there’s one thing all cultures have in common, it’s that we all love our own food and are very proud of it. We also like to talk about how good our food is, even when we’re not eating! Unless you have an allergy that can kill you, try first and ask questions later, but at least try. Chances are you’ll like more things than you think, and your appreciation for their food is the true way to win hearts and minds.
- Be patient – Nothing nothing nothing anywhere in the world moves at the same speed as things in the West. We have high standards for quality and efficiency that will likely not be met overseas. Breathe and embrace the slower pace for once. You’ll live.
- All eyes on you – Everything you do is magnified overseas. Your mannerisms, your pace, your tone of voice are all being analyzed constantly because you look different and people are naturally curious about you. Act as if you’re on stage, and your performance determines to a large extent determines how your home country will be viewed. That’s a mighty burden but also an honor.
Without a doubt, go see the world. It will enchant you beyond your wildest dreams. Follow just a little bit of my unsolicited advice, and you’ll make human connections in faraway lands that will last a lifetime. Count on it.
To quote Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”