Thursday, December 5, 2013

Are We There Yet?

If you have not read my blog before then you might not know that I am addicted to traveling. I absolutely love to discover new places, meet new people and learn new things about the world. Unfortunately citizens of the USA sometimes get pigeon holed even before we arrive in another country.

One of my favorite topics to talk about when I am sitting in a hostel common space is what people think of Americans. We often get a bad wrap and sometimes its not hard to see why.

Most of the generalizations about USA travelers revolve around our ignorance. I don't disagree, we have lots of very ignorant people in the USA, but there are also very intelligent people, not to mention some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Where does this stereotype come from? Could it be the social media that we produce? Jersey Shore, Kardashians, Sweet 16 to name a few. Could it be the way we conduct ourselves in other countries?

Another stereotype of  people from my country is that we were to close minded and judgmental. It can be a shock to arrive in a country that is very different from where you have always lived. It can be hard to survive without your iphone or your favorite foods. It can sometimes be uncomfortable to follow new social regulations and traditions. Too often tourists from the USA feel like they can bring US culture with them when they travel, but part of the experience of traveling is learning and adjusting.

I was definitely shocked to see other western tourist going to the Golden Temple, a very sacred place for Sikh's from around the world just to snap a few picture. Too often we visit other countries to see rather than learn. One of my favorite quotes is "traveling is the only thing that you buy that makes you richer." I believe full heartily that traveling is worth more than the amount of money you spend if you go with an open mind and eagerness to learn.

When I spent a week with my friends family in Punjab, India, they already had an idea of what I would be like. I would be one of those blonds on TV with short shorts and fake breasts. I would not show respect for culture, I would be judgmental and uncomfortable. I will complain about the food and the hard bed. Its very hard to break stereotypes.

Mark Twain said "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." I would like to think that people who really travel with an open-mind do come back with a broader spectrum of knowledge and insight. 

My inspiration for this post was a recent satirical article from an Onion-like Costa Rican Journal called El Pejibaye. It's about a gringa  (which is a derogatory name for a USA resident, I had the pleasure of my mom calling me a gringa growing up, therefore not too fond of the word), who intended to visit San Jose, Costa Rica for a Spanish program but ended up spending 5 days in San Jose, California before realizing she was not in Costa Rica. Click here to read the full article Study Abroad Gringa Takes Five Days to Realize She’s in California. What shocked me was not the story which is satire, but the comments from people who actually thought it was true. One commentator says "Dear me, I am from Louisville, Kentucky, and I don’t like this story one bit. It’s fishy. San Jose CR is a wonderful city, but nothing like LA….ye gods…." and another "And she gets to vote too … aaaah God Bless America!" and my favorite "How stupid can you be!!!! I wish I could tell her to her face." I wonder how long it will take this person to find this fictional character?

The article really hits home the stereotype of the USA traveler that I have encountered while traveling around the world. I thought it was really funny, but it definitely perpetuates the idea of the unintelligent "Amurican". 

What can USA travelers do to to change these steriotypes? Do we need to change the way we display ourselves to the world? Do we need to have less risque media? Do we need to prevent people from traveling until they pre-research about the countries traditions and customs? Do we need to teach more about other countries in our schools? 

I think the easiest change is to look inward at ourselves and be aware of how we conduct ourselves when we travel. We need to keep our minds open and be able to adapt in new situations. We need to be respectful even if its uncomfortable. We need to stop calling ourselves American's when we travel, because America has many countries including Chile, Columbia, Hunduras, and Canada. Even United States is wrong since Mexico is also referred to as the United States.

Don't give other countries a reason to make fun of us. Make it easier for travelers, instead of spending energy destroying stereotypes lets make change. 

So are we there yet? Not even closeBecky Miller from Study Abroad Gringa Takes Five Days to Realize She’s in California represents the USA's struggle with stereotypes. If we can prove ourselves around the world then we can finally arrive at our true destination, which is to be respected as a country, but in turn we must show our own respect. 

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." - Nelson Mandela

May one of the most influential people in history rest in peace and may his teachings guide us forever. 

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