I was on a plane yesterday waiting for it to take off and thrilled to be headed back to Morocco—one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. I was busy thinking about taking a much-needed nap on the flight, the wonderful tastes of tajine again, and how much I was looking forward to braving trying my very rusty French. As I boarded the plane, I managed to hear a number of voices that I recognized. I cringed. They were fellow American voices. And they were young Americans—clearly on a Spring Break vacation with pop music playing over their headphones and talking about how they were able to get frequent flier miles from Daddy.
It seems like it’s either hit or miss when I come across other Americans when I travel. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a relief to hear something familiar, but it takes only about a moment after hearing them speak that I wish I could turn the other way. I want to say to the surrounding people on my bus, airplane, or train, “I’m not one of them. I’m really not.” Other times, I connect and have a great time.
It’s a complicated relationship. On the one hand, I can’t fault my countrymen and women for traveling. In fact, I’m very happy that they are. Nothing kills American exceptionalism like hitting the road and finding out we’re just one of many civilizations that have graced this earth. The world is a better place when you travel—you’re reaching out to others you might not have if you hadn’t taken the opportunity to see it. Your perceptions change, and you learn how to become independent and a little less reliant on your family and friends.
On the other hand, I cringe because I don’t want other societies to think of us as spoiled, selfish, and a little bit loud and annoying. I’m aware that we are, and the best travelers try hard to always present themselves in a reasonable manner. We’re entering someone else’s domain. While we shouldn’t lose our identities or our values (and some cultures are more receptive toward bad behavior than others), we should be reminded that we are guests while seeing another country.
I wrote about this topic a few years ago, and it’s something I think about often when going new places. What if I am one of those Americans? How can I act so I don’t come across as someone who seems to think as though our culture is the best culture? How can I relate to others around me and be respectful?
The question of whether or not we are ambassadors while traveling is a tricky one. Some don’t like to have that responsibility when they go someplace new. Some would rather see us positively represented than not. As a reminder to my fellow Americans (because, after our current leader taking office, we really don’t need to be embarrassed further), if not for yourselves, please keep your other American wanderers in mind. Be kind to those from other cultures. Be wary of what the customs are. Don’t tell an individual from another place that the way he or she does things is “wrong.” And please, please, please keep racist thoughts to yourself.
We live in a connected world now. And what you say and do really does change how others from various parts of the world see us. If we didn’t want to understand how others live, we might as well have stayed at home.
Keep wandering (responsibly),