I’m from New York City, born and raised. When I tell people this as I travel, it often makes me proud; New York City still holds an air of mystery and cosmopolitan charm to many. I tell them I’m from New York, and I feel honored, as I come from this great metropolitan area and somehow I earned this title through some hard effort and sheer fortitude, rather than just circumstance that my parents lived within the five boroughs at the time.
Whether you like it or not, you are where you’re from. I don’t mean to say that you follow the stereotypes or cultural norms of the city, region, or country you are from, but let’s face it: when we travel, we are part of that stereotype to others, whether inadvertently, unintentionally, unwittingly, or otherwise.
That is, until we break it.
As a New Yorker, I’m also, to my indifference, an American: I’m fat, obnoxious, gun-slinging, warmongering, bullying, lazy, arrogant, capitalistic, materialistic, ignorant, violent, and so forth. I’m not well-traveled, apparently, as most Americans aren’t viewed as such. However, I know I am far from any of these things; sure, I might have an arrogant air and harsh tongue at times, but that is my oft-misunderstood New Yorkerness.
I might have a slightly-higher-than-ideal body mass index, but I’m not fat. I abhor the war-is-the-answer-to-everything stance that many Americans live by; and also, my anxiety-ridden nerves wouldn’t allow me to ever be a candidate for gun ownership – I’d probably hurt myself first, and everything but the intended target next. Oh, and I’d like to think that I’m somewhat well-traveled.
Remember: Whenever We Travel, We Are Each An Ambassador.
Yet people embrace these stereotypes all around the world (which is why, in fact, they are stereotypes). Germans have no humor, while the French smell funny; Hungarians are porn stars; Middle Easterners are terrorists; Somalis are pirates; the Chinese can’t drive (and neither can Indians or Bangladeshis, for that matter); Colombians all have some connection to drug-smuggling guerilla cells; Russians are homophobes, lately; Ukrainians are all still radioactive; Australians each have a kangaroo as a pet; this could go on in perpetuity.
Logically, if we look at these generalizations individually, we can see how absurd they are. Sure, there are gonna be some French citizens who should try a stronger antiperspirant, and I’ve been saddened at the recent wave of hate crimes against the LGBT community in Russia. But all the French people in my life (and I’ve a bunch) smell great, and the Russians in my diverse group of friends at home and abroad are definitely not representative of this awful hate culture against gays and lesbians.
So, how do we fix these hurtful and distorted misconceptions that are so prevalent today? How can we best counter the offensive generalizations that are damning to both parties: the believer of said stereotypes and their vast predicate? Well, we can stand up against these if we hear them being said, or we may write to our local government representative to take a tougher stance on vitriolic hyperbole. But these are simply Band-Aids over old, festering wounds, and these wounds will no doubt leave a scar unless we treat them early, properly, and with a great deal of care.
The Russians can fix Russian problems at home, and Americans can work on their shortcomings stateside. You know who I believe are the people who are most responsible for changing the world’s most ignorant and damaging generalizations?
Travelers have a greater responsibility than just relaxing, working up a tan, snapping selfies in front of foreign architectural marvels, and trying new foods. For a brief, fleeting window of opportunity while a traveler is abroad, he or she is a representative of their land of origin. He or she is an ambassador of their city and nation, and by proxy, its stereotypes, though often unbeknownst to both the traveler and local population. Why should travelers be aware of this burden, when usually it is the burdens of home that they are temporarily trying to forget?
The answer is twofold:
1. Travelers can sway negative opinions of their own people and homeland by simply being everything that is not what the locals have come to believe.
As an American, each time I travel abroad I like to shine a light on my progressive beliefs. I accentuate my honest, childlike curiosity of the local customs, history, and foods that I come across. I highlight the fact that I do not own a gun. I am not being someone I’m not, and I’m not encouraging anyone else to behave in a certain manner, or say they believe certain things, simply to help facilitate relations and understanding between two peoples. Rather, a sincere exchange between a traveler and the dozen or so people they might encounter while traveling is arguably better at building bridges than almost anything else.
When we travel, we are part of any negative stereotype that may be held against our origin to others. Whether you like it or not, you are where you’re from. So, whether you like it or not, inadvertently, unintentionally, unwittingly, or otherwise, you are an ambassador.
I sit down at a bar, alone, on one of my trips to Mexico. I start making small talk with the guy sitting on the bar stool to my left. We graduate from the weather to the levels of difficulties in our respective past weeks. We laugh at each other’s jokes, and form an unspoken, mutual pact against certain injustices happening on the front page of the local paper. Suddenly, the guy wonders why we haven’t been talking in Spanish, since I often am mistaken for being Latin American due to my vague, multiracial features. I tell him I’m a US citizen, from New York, and that I’m something of a mutt – my European father’s side and my Asian mother’s side combined so that I “came out” looking like I speak the Spanish. He laughs some more, and I feel as though I disarmed him; my quip at my own expense is quite contrary to the way he understood Americans, and it definitely doesn’t jibe with the arrogance that he had heard New Yorkers are infamous for.
You see? It is like this that I try to represent my home country and city while I travel, these person-to-person exchanges. I know that this may sound smug, that I’m exhibiting the very arrogance now that I’ve been attempting to denounce about myself and where I’m from, but hear me out. Rather than attempting to combat each offensive stereotypical attribute that one group of people may have of New York City or the United States, if I can change the perspective of one person at a time, I’m quite happy. Multiply this by the number of people I might come across on a given trip, and then again by every traveler – this seemingly inconsequential and ineffective person-to-person strategy now begins to make sense, doesn’t it?
2. Travelers, upon returning home, can speak authoritatively against any broad, offensive generalizations by their friends and family of the people and place they just visited.
Let’s continue with this same example from before. Perhaps this Mexican, my new friend, will go home and tell his friends that he met some gringo, “but he wasn’t so stupid, after all.” Perhaps one day, one of his friends will read something in the paper of another awful thing that the United States is doing, and perhaps my new friend will kindly relate to his friend that Americans aren’t so bad, really. Sure, their government does ridiculous and atrocious things, but whose doesn’t, really?
In the same manner, as we return from travel, we are now able to speak with a bit more authority on the place we just returned from, especially to those who’ve no idea and have never been there for themselves. If someone just came back from Mexico, their contact list and Facebook now heavier with a few more foreign friends, I doubt they’d sit idly by as a friend or coworker murmurs some obscene remark about Mexicans. No, I’d like to think that they’d speak up against that friend or coworker, because now they have a duty to fulfill which is to honor those new friendships made in Mexico. Otherwise, it was all for naught, and they might as well un-friend those Mexicans and write them off as a footnote of past adventures abroad.
Friendships made abroad are stronger than we think, often quicker to ripen and bear fruit than a friendship made at home. I know this from experience, and I believe that it is because a traveler is somewhat out of their comfort zone while engaging in said traveling. When someone else, a local, befriends us while we are feeling more vulnerable, our loyalty and admiration for them begins at an advantage. That is the beauty of friendships made between travelers and locals whom they come across, and it is why I also assume that travelers will feel a stronger sense of duty to honor their absent new friend’s friendship, though they may do so to the detriment of longstanding relationships at home.
I still, jokingly, admonish my Italian friends for almost causing me physical harm as they gesticulate while conversing with me. I jump at every chance to challenge my best friend’s mathematical logic when it comes to splitting a dinner tab, because he’s Indian, and we both get a kick out of it. I tease my eight friends from Latvia, telling them that I must know half of their country’s population. These actions and words are not hurtful, if said in the right way, with the proper awareness of where it could become offensive, and with a genuine cultural love of the national target of my ridicule. Or at least I hope they’re not.
A real ambassador, hired by a government to be a diplomatic liaison in a foreign land, has the duty to promote relations between the two nations, amongst myriad other responsibilities. However, as is ever more apparent nowadays, politics and its goals are increasingly ineffective. I’ve seen confirmation hearings and was appropriately horrified when I learned that some recent ambassador nominees had never even been to the countries where they were potentially to be posted. Even for the ones who have knowledge of the country where they will be stationed, an ambassador or consul must adhere to protocol and bureaucracy, and this gets in the way of proper conversation and real relationship-building.
Thus it is up to us, each and every time we travel, to improve cultural relationships and augment global understanding in this manner. We must represent all the good of the place we are traveling from, becoming a proper ambassador of our beliefs and values, while expunging with patience and a good attitude the hurtful generalizations people might wrongly believe about us and our fellow countrymen. And when we return home, we must be sure to likewise expose any offensive stereotypes of the new friends we’ve just made abroad for the damaging and dangerous lies and distortions that they are. In this manner, slowly but steadily, progress can be made and the world really will become a better place.
After all, we are all ambassadors as we travel, whether we like it or not.
*For another pertinent (IMHO) article, please check out: ENRICH: Understanding Ethnicity, Nationality, Race, Identity, Culture, and Heritage »