Cape Town, South Africa – Funny thing about travel. As you come in contact with new people and have new experiences far from home and your comfort zone, travel changes you. The longer you travel and are away from familiar surroundings, the more you change. Over the course of my first two plus months on the road, I’ve felt myself going through this. I can feel that I have changed, hopefully for the better, and adopted more of a world view after living with and amongst people from all over the world and experiencing life with them in places that are quite different from home.
There are simple examples, like the fact that I don’t really watch TV anymore, but there are also much larger realizations that tend to change one’s worldview and perceptions. Below are ten of these realizations I’ve had up to this point in my travels. What I’ve written below may be viewed as “fightin’ words” to some people, but I’m just calling it like I see it after observing my own culture and society from afar while interacting with others from around the world (including the occasional American).
So, here’s what I’ve learned, so far:
1. Don’t believe the hype – Only a third of Americans currently hold a passport. That means at least two-thirds of Americans have never been outside North America – leaving a vast majority of Americans to learn about different cultures through high school textbooks, Hollywood and the internet. None of which are probably the most trustworthy of sources (how out of date do you think that textbook really is?). For that reason, many people think that Thailand is filled with prostitutes and gangsters, Vietnam hates us because we recently fought a war with them and there’s a Communist government in place, Indonesia is filled with poverty stricken Muslim Jihadists just waiting for their chance to slit the throats of Westerners, and all of Africa is a place to avoid due to crime, disease, and war.
While there is a modicum of truth to all of the examples above (that is how stereotypes are formed), they don’t represent the majority of people living in those countries. Thai people on a whole are actually quite conservative and religious. The Vietnamese government may not have the fondest of feelings towards the US, but the people couldn’t be any nicer or happier to meet Westerners, including Americans – they did win that war after all. Indonesians (at least in Jakarta) are actually quite peaceful people and there’s enough ultra lux spots to make any LA hipster green with envy. And, I never once felt threatened or insecure during my entire two months in Southeast Asia (all Asian cultures and societies are non confrontational by nature) or during my first few weeks in Africa (and no weird diseases to report, yet). How do I know all of this? I chose to travel and find out for myself – and ignore the American hype machine.
2. People are people, governments are governments – Another important distinction to make is that a government and its people do not always hold the same perceptions and grudges. Foreigners can make that distinction between Americans and our government, but Americans can’t do the same about foreigners. Why? Look no further than point number one. The hype machine would have you believe that all people within a country act and feel the same way, which isn’t true. The governments of the US and Vietnam may not be the best of friends, but that doesn’t mean the Vietnamese people weren’t some of the most open, warm hearted, caring people that I’ve met on my travels. They didn’t care where I was from or what I did for a living, they only cared about who I am and getting to know me. That’s something a lot of Americans could learn from.
3. America is a paranoid place – I get that 9/11 happened, but we’re not the only ones. Plus, it doesn’t mean everyone who isn’t white and doesn’t live in Canada, Australia, or Europe is a terrorist. The UK dealt with the IRA for years, Spain has had train bombings, France and Norway recently had their share of problems, but none of those countries have clamped down on civil liberties like the US has in the past 11 years. But, it goes beyond terrorism. We think everyone is out to get us, whether it’s our job, our money, or our significant others. And, if something is different from them or their way of life, Americans automatically believe it’s a threat to their very existence and way of life. I have news for you – the rest of the world doesn’t care what happens in America. Sure, the big stuff makes headlines, but everyone else has these things called daily lives they need to tend to. Outside of the terrorists, who are everywhere, there’s no one out to get you. So, relax and enjoy life for once.
4. Americans can be brash, arrogant, and self-centered – American society is based on everyone trying to be the best – at everything we do. This has its good sides (American ingenuity) and its bad sides (everyone thinks the universe revolves around them). The perception much of the rest of the world has of American society is we’re just a bunch of spoiled rotten brats who don’t know how to play with others. We’re also super competitive and don’t always look out for each other or for the best interests of the group (ie. our country). And, everyone always has to be right and can never admit when they’re wrong. Could these be contributing factors to the malaise and hate rhetoric filtering its way into our political discourse? Could it be why there’s so much corruption on Wall Street and Corporate America? Could it be why there is so much violence on our streets, in our homes, and in our schools? By rule, only one person can be the best at something and only one person can be right in an argument. So, you’re not always going to be the best at everything and you’re going to be wrong about something eventually. Deal with it.
5. America is a violent place – There are more guns in the US than anywhere else in the world – and it’s not even close. There are more gun deaths each year in the US than anywhere else in the world. After the Aurora, CO shootings last month, gun sales actually increased. Most of the guns being used in the Mexican drug wars come from the US. The US has more people incarcerated than anywhere else in the world. I understand guns and their inherent risks aren’t going away (there’s way too many of them out there to make that a feasible solution), but take a look in the mirror America. If people kill people, then why do we continue to let at risk people have guns and other weapons? Why do we continue to stand by as our local police forces begin to resemble small militaries? We bemoan how dangerous the rest of the world is, but I would wager walking down the street in a lot of places in the US is just as dangerous, if not more.
6. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate well – In the US, everyone loves to use sarcasm. We say the opposite of what we actually mean to say or we act angrier or happier than we actually feel. Considering not everyone in our own country can pick up on the sarcasm in one’s voice during a conversation, you can imagine the struggles that a non native English speaker may go through trying to understand you during the course of a normal conversation. Since one liners and sarcastic quips are pretty much my entire comedic routine, there were some interesting and frustrating moments at the beginning of the trip when I thought I was being funny and everyone else thought I was being serious. For instance, there was a girl in our house in Vietnam who had a tough time adjusting to life in Hanoi and never really embraced the organized chaos of the city. When she left, I remarked that she was really going to miss the city. She looked at me with a half quizzical, half pissed off look before remarking, “Are you kidding? Why would I miss it?” before going on a diatribe (in a continually rising voice) about everything that was wrong with the city compared to Europe. I sat through the entire thing trying to look interested because I really didn’t have the heart to tell her I was only joking…
7. Americans need to be more direct – In addition to being sarcastic, Americans by nature are polite – no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings or embarrass anyone in public. However, in the process Americans tend to beat around the bush and say things we don’t mean. Telling others what we’re feeling or thinking isn’t one of our fortes as a society. Think about it, in politics the silent majority remains silent while the extremes take over the public dialogue. Men can’t express their feelings unless their weak or gay. Women can’t be assertive or strong willed when expressing an opinion unless they’re feminists or just plain bitches. What does that say about our society? I’m guilty of not expressing myself as much as the next American (I’ve vowed to use this trip to get better at it). However, I’ve come to the realization that that’s not how life works. Life isn’t all happiness and smiles. There’s plenty of pain and sadness out there to go around, and if you can’t deal with it – or won’t deal with it – then you’re not really experiencing life.
8. Lack of language skills put Americans at a disadvantage – America has no official language and there are many, many languages spoken throughout the country, yet English is the only language accepted at large. America’s a big place, it’s the world’s biggest economy, and you really don’t need to leave the country to have a successful life. I get it. But, that doesn’t mean we should expect the rest of the world to speak English and kowtow to our ways – especially if we’re not willing to learn other languages. Not to mention knowing other languages and being able to converse with someone in their native tongue would make our nation and its people better world citizens and neighbors. Who knows, we might actually learn a thing or two and better understand how the world actually works.
9. Thinking you know a little about something means you know nothing – You either know something or you don’t. If you think you know a little about something, you really don’t know anything about it. I may think I know a little French or a little Spanish, but when confronted with a native speaker I quickly realize how little I know. The same goes for current affairs or any other topic – just because you read an article or have a conversation with someone doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert on the topic, or can even have an intelligent conversation with someone about it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have that conversation or try to speak French or Spanish. It just means you should be open to learning more and not claim to be a master on the topic. Who knows, you might become an expert in due time.
10. Socialism isn’t all that bad – As I see it, the key to a strong society is economic prosperity, and there are three keys to achieving this: Peace, Health, and Education. All three are needed to create a truly vibrant society, but the problem with America today is that we’re creating a society of haves and have nots based on a person’s socioeconomic standing. If you have money, you have access to good healthcare and a quality education. If you don’t have money, then you’re doomed to just scraping to get by. In most Western countries there’s national healthcare in place, and in most European countries there’s affordable access to higher education (hell, you get a stipend to go to University in Sweden). I know we enjoy the Darwinian concept of every man for himself that’s ingrained in our culture and society, but sometimes what’s best for the group is actually best for the individual. Think about it, those other Western countries spend far less on healthcare and education than the US does, yet they have comparable, if not better, systems in place. I agree there’s bad socialism like the current unemployment benefits and welfare system, but there’s also good socialism. Socialism isn’t Communism so it’s not all bad – there are shades of grey in there. Go back to my three keys above. If we can strengthen or improve our healthcare and education systems while saving money, I think that could lead to an even stronger and more vibrant society than we have today.