Before I left on my 13-month career break trip, my dad asked me if I was going to dye my hair. I laughed at the idea and immediately shot it down. His theory was likely that somehow as a brunette, I may not stand out as much while traveling in Central Asia. In my mind, dying my hair brown would simply make me look like a brunette American instead of a blond American.
His suggestion underlies a common perception about Americans traveling abroad – that we stand out as Americans. This was one of several myths that I found to be untrue during my months traveling around the former Soviet Union.
Americans Stand Out as Americans
When I arrived in Moldova, the man at the currency exchange immediately asked me if I was Russian. I shook my head and said “nyet.”
“Nyet. Ya Amerikanka.”
He seemed shocked, but excited when I finally revealed I was American. His reaction was typical of most people I met along the way. Indeed, there was not a single occasion on my trip when I met a local and they immediately guessed I was American. Not once.
Now, was I the stereotypical American traveling around? Not really. I spoke decent Russian, which allowed me to pass for Russian at first glance. I had purchased a good chunk of my wardrobe while on the road, so I wasn’t decked out in a “typical American” outfit – no cargo shorts, no white tennis shoes and no logo-emblazoned t-shirts. But I did carry a North Face day pack and wear Gap jeans and stumble over my Russian on more than one occasion. In my mind, I thought it should be clear to people that I was American, but it really wasn’t.
Not only that, when I met other travelers, I rarely knew until I heard them speak whether they were American, British, Australian, Canadian or none of the above. If I can’t pick out a fellow American while traveling, why would we assume the locals can?
People Hate Americans
I firmly believe this could not be further from the truth. In my experience, most people can differentiate between the American people and the American government. Even if they disagree with American policies, they don’t take it out on Americans. As soon as I revealed I was American, I was greeted with shrieks of delight and peppered with curious questions. A teacher in St. Petersburg, Russia excitedly introduced me to her class, proud that a real live American was there to help her students learn English. The driver of a marshrutka in Kyrgyzstan rushed to have his picture taken with me as soon as I told him I was American. The passport control officers as I first arrived in Georgia proclaimed multiple times how much they love Americans and how Americans will always be welcome in Georgia.
Even when I was in Egypt several years ago (pre-revolution), a group of men who initially said they hated Americans backtracked once I revealed my home country. Instead, they explained that they really just hated George W. Bush and were afraid he planned to invade Egypt after he was done in Iraq.
The Rest of the World No Longer Admires the USA
I have read a few blog posts in the last few months speculating that the rest of the world no longer looks up to the USA – that the economic crisis took its toll and lowered our country’s stature in the rest of the world. Again, from my experience this is not true at all.
First, I was amazed at how much the people I met knew about the USA. One guy I met in Georgia decried President Obama’s recent announcement in support of same-sex marriage. A Georgian taxi driver was eager to pick my bran about the upcoming US presidential election and another driver explained to me why he favored Mitt Romney because he though a Romney presidency would help Georgia’s chances of getting into NATO. My host father in Armenia quizzed me about Mormons in the US and was fascinated with JFK’s presidency. And a 60-year-old man I met in the mountains of Tajikistan knew more about what the US was doing in Afghanistan than I did.
Second, I met plenty of people who still dream of visiting the United States. This was most often the case in Central Asia. The first three people I met in Uzbekistan asked me about getting a visa or green card to the US and every teenager I met in Kazakhstan seemed to dream of going to college in the States. My hosts in Moscow were proud to own an American car and were learning English so they could eventually take an old-fashioned road trip across the USA.
Americans Are All Loud and Obnoxious
This may be one of the most common American stereotypes abroad. Now, I’m not going to say that there aren’t some Americans who may be loud and obnoxious as they travel overseas. I certainly have met a few myself (I’ve probably been one myself on occasion as well). But for every American tourist who talks too loudly or gets too drunk, there is an Australian, a Kiwi, a Russian or some other nationality doing the same thing – or even worse. I personally have encountered far more non-Americans than Americans who have been rude or obnoxious, dressed inappropriately, gotten stupid drunk or ignored all local social norms. I’m not saying it’s okay by any means – I just don’t think Americans should get all the blame.
Now, I realize this post is based on a lot of stereotypes. They are stereotypes that I have seen frequently in the media or in the posts of other travel bloggers that I simply feel are not true – based on my experience. I realize I was traveling a bit off the beaten path, so my mileage may vary. Someone traveling through western Europe or southeast Asia may have a completely different perception of these stereotypes.
So I’m curious – in your experience, how true have these stereotypes been?