Where are you from? That is almost universally one of the first questions travelers ask one another. As I spoke the country's language whilst traveling in Europe, I contemplated what would happen if I lied. “I am from Hong Kong” or “I am Chinese.” Who would know? After all, I was often the token Asian and people have remarked about my “mastery” of the English language.
Don’t get me wrong though, I’m proud to be an American and said it with a smile. Still, I would hesitate for a second as I learned being honest sometimes led to unpleasantries. But what I decided was that no matter who you are, be proud. I say prove the haters wrong, be thankful that they have taught you the foulness of discrimination, and never let them poison your wonderful experience. Still, I want to warn you of what awaits you and note, whether or not you're American, before this stops, it won’t be fun if the tables turn.
Let’s start broad. Have you ever asked someone to help you take a picture? Often, they gladly do it with a smile. That happened to me when I was in China and happened to ask two Irish women for a photo. After I posed and took back the camera, they complimented with big smiles on how well I pronounced English words. Laughing, I replied with “Thanks, but I'm actually American.” and I have never seen smiles showing bright white teeth turn into upside down frowns. With an “Oh”, they walked off. Was that necessary? Especially to a fourteen year old who could pass for a ten year old?
Have you ever heard about the inhospitable French? They are universally known for the pride and snobbery to foreigners. So have you heard that speaking English would make you invisible (though completely opposite in northern Belgium)?
Well, at the Hostel International in Nice, I saw a backpacker ignored for a few minutes just because he spoke English. I would have spoke up, but I wasn't on the top of her list either because I was American.
Minutes before, she expressed her surprise that an American could speak French. Except the surprise was sardonic and offensive. Apparently not only did she hold a disdain for Americans, she didn’t like it when one showed up dispelling her ability to discriminate. It appears some people just like to hate.
Though not an isolated incident, the French are great people and there are only a few rotten apples in the bushel. Unfortunately, these rotten apples are everywhere as I learned from my first North American roommates in Bilbao.
Having spent a year teaching English in Barcelona, my new friend from New York had experienced anti-Americanism all too often. As she rehashed the events last night that led to my night screeching, explained in side box, she told me that she was excited to go home because of this hate that springs forth randomly and everywhere.
As her friend just flew in to Bilbao, the two decided to hit up the bars and there they met a group of guys, one of whom began to latch onto my friend and just verbally attack her as they migrated outside to a plaza. Without any provocation, he criticized and insulted her. He suddenly felt compelled to trash the American government and jackhammered his lack of desire to ever set a foot upon American soil. She told me that for many Europeans, anti-Americanism is a past time— whereas every other country is safe, anyone gets to trash American without repercussions.
Hearing her words, I had hoped she was wrong, but in the end, my optimism was misplaced. In a bus stop in Old Town Dinan, France, I had a fun conversation with a Parisian also waiting for the bus headed for St. Malo. He told me of his travels, and bit about his family, and talked about his job working in the telephone market. Twenty minutes later, he asked me where I was from, and if I was from China. The second I acknowledged my Chinese ancestry but noted that I was American, I was subject to an endless rant about the American government and its responsibility to the world until the bus came another ten or so minutes later.
He attacked President Obama. He attacked our policies. He wanted me to understand that as the world power, we were beholden to uphold the world's economy, as there is a domino effect. Fortunately, some of his bluster disappeared when I mostly agreed as I lacked the background and stated that the American government is indeed still young comparatively. Now, I don’t wish to squabble over this as I don’t have a background in politics or economics. But that is exactly why I was so disappointed, after discovering my citizenship, he ceased to see me as a person who might have other interests. To him, I was a messenger, and if he attacked me enough, I would affect change in the American government. I believe that each and every ...
... person that participates makes a difference, but this is simply not the way to go about it. If he had treated me with respect, I would have considered the words spewing from his mouth.
Everyone is different. Every comes from different backgrounds. Some are good, and some are bad. Instead of disparaging others, can we not choose to learn from one another? Perhaps it’s easy for me because that is my reason for travel and learning foreign languages. I believe that in every country and culture, there are mirrors of food I like, singers I like, stories I like, people I like, places I like, etc. For that reason, learning a country’s language and traveling within means I get to discover the treasures available in
the world I never even knew of. We all have so much to share with one another.
So be proud of who you are. Show the world that everyone has something to share, that everyone should be respected. With a grand smile, embrace the world and sometimes when it doesn’t embrace you back, show it that hate is unnecessary.
I would like to close with two quotes, one from a great movie I just watched, The Lorax, and another from the beautiful song “Gift of Acceptance” by the delightful India.Arie.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you, and have a great day.
“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” - The Lorax
“We can debate till the end of time
who’s wrong and who is right,
Or I can honour your choices
and you can honour mine.
We all want the same things from life,
We want peace, love and prosperity.
But can we give up our need to be right?
Give the world a present,
give the gift of your acceptance.” - Gift of Acceptance, India.Arie
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