I’ve lived over half my life in other countries, and I’m always a bit surprised at America’s perception of the rest of the world when I come back, probably due to the great distance between us and them. For example, many people here seem to have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to Christianity, but when it comes to Islam or Buddhism, they think it’s either criminally misunderstood or a cool philosophy that people don’t actually treat as a religion. I have complex feelings about those things, but they are not so black and white and they don’t generalize or trivialize both the shortcomings and wisdom from such religions and/or philosophies. The “Noble Savage” trope is common among us Americans — the idea that the religions and ideas east of us are more romantic and in touch with the nature of things, but our prudish and judgmental ways are lame and, well, boringly familiar.
When these same types of people see something they don’t like within the U.S., they say things like, “this is why everyone hates Americans” or “this is why American tourists suck.” I recently saw comments saying that when they traveled, natives from other countries avoided Americans with disdain, or even spoke harshly to them, simply because they were from the U.S. — I have heard this several times. Of course, these innocent American tourists were doing nothing wrong, it’s all someone else’s fault — Donald Trump, the U.S. government, other noisy tourists, drone strikes in the Middle East — anyone and anything but the person telling the story.
I have lived in three countries outside of the U.S. for anywhere from 13 months to 9 years, and visited just under 20 — I have found these ideas to be grossly untrue, and it continues to feed into this strange notion that many Americans are obsessed with: “We are the center of the universe, and we suck.”
Before we get started, I just want to say that if you’re an obnoxious tourist then no one is going to like you, American or not. In my experience, Americans can be annoying as tourists and they can be cool — if I had to generalize I would say they are certainly not the worst.
First of all, the average farmer in northern Pakistan or the hill-tribesman in Thailand just doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about Americans, as much as a random American would spend time thinking about how much they specifically hate Argentinians or people from Kazakhstan. To say otherwise is to assume that the spotlight is always on America, and for many people in the world, it’s most certainly not. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking they spend enough time thinking about you to hate you.
And if we’re talking about people more plugged in to the international community, in my experience they tend to have stronger feelings about their neighbors — for example, the Thais are going to be thinking more about Chinese tourists then they are about American ones.
Secondly, people usually don’t think in these sorts of generalities. If you’re going on about how great the people are in other countries, discounting the idea that maybe they’re just like everyone else (America included), then it seems counter to your agenda to say that they also base their judgements of each tourist on a general hatred toward a whole country. If someone really were to hate all Americans based off politics or foreign policy, I wouldn’t really want anything to do with them anyway. I highly dislike the politics in Pakistan, but I have nothing against Pakistanis individually. That’s how most people are, especially in face-to-face conversation like these tourists are having.
Of course, there are some places out there that have a general disdain for Americans — usually in places where direct American policy has changed daily life in a negative way — but out of the three non-American countries that I’ve lived in, that was not the case while I lived there.
And no, I do not believe that you can really get to know a place if you were only there for a month, or even two months. It takes at least several months, even years maybe, of living and working (or going to school) in a country before you can really get a feel for what the people think in general — and you’ll find that, just like in America, they are often fractured, hover toward two sides of an argument and all possess their own unique opinions and experiences. Hell, it took me months after I moved to Tampa speaking to people (in English, no less) before I got a feel for the types of things they liked and didn’t like, and the various opinions and beliefs floating around — and after three years, I’m still learning!
Even then you’ll realize that it depends what area of the country you’re in, and what their interactions with Americans has been in the past. To generalize a whole people, country or even continent seems a little presumptuous. These are not simpletons milling around in other countries all hating Americans together because they aren’t able to come up with their own unique thoughts and ideas; they are varied and unique, just like we have here.
“That’s why when you travel, people don’t like Americans.” What country are you talking about? Where in that country? What led them to believe that? Is that a general disdain? Are you sure they just don’t like tourists in general because working in the customer service industry (which is tourism) sucks?
More often than not, people are nice and welcoming, especially in tourist areas. Their business thrives off of tourism, and many people love to share their culture. Recently, an aid organization by the name of Earth Mission took several Karen (from Burma) to the U.S. for the first time. Their experience was overwhelmingly positive, and everyone — from the deep south to the inner cities — had fun showing them American culture. This is not always the case in many countries, but I’ve seen that far more often than I’ve seen people sneer at Americans for their crime of being American.
“But Luke, I’ve traveled here for a week and I’m sure of it: they didn’t like Americans. I got nasty looks and people were avoiding me like I had something wrong with me.”
Well it’s worth considering that maybe they don’t hate Americans as a whole, maybe they just hate you.
Featured image courtesy of Pexels.