My sister and I went to see "Long Way Down" this evening, and as usual, I greatly enjoyed the trek from my somewhat comfy theatre chair. However, with each passing day on the screen, I became more and more aware of a misconception in my own mind that I need to break through: I have Ugly-American-Phobia.
I don't mean that I wander around other countries in my Stars and Stripes t-shirt, expecting everyone to speak English, take dollars and serve burgers. I mean that, as a traveler, I am hiding behind such a fear of being associated with this highly resented stereotype that I'm terrified to be acknowledged or genuine when I'm abroad. I could never have reached out as much and as often as the two men in "Long Way Down"; I would have felt quite unwelcome. I've adopted the "When in Rome" mentality so much, that I'm actually very uncomfortable not fitting in lest I be recognized and associated with the loud, fanny pack-toting Americans around me. Yet ironically, this irrational fear keeps me from truly experiencing the place and the people I traveled so far to get a taste of.
This evening, I became so aware of how much of my travels I've spent trying to be too much of a chameleon, lightly treading my so-called heavy American footprint, silently absorbing what I can before disappearing as quickly as I can. And why? Because I feel that I am unwanted based solely on my citizenship. I feel like admitting I'm an American is going to be met with hostility right off the bat, even though I'm doing my best to immerse myself in the local language, currency, foods, etc. But when I really think about it, this misconception doesn't come from my travels at all. Most of the people I've met abroad have been nothing but kind to me, even after learning where I'm from. Instead, this misconception comes from travel books and grumpy travel blogs heavily pointing a finger at people that are expecting everyone to speak English, take dollars and serve burgers...which I decidedly am not.
I've realized I need to embrace who I am and learn to appreciate myself for what I am when I travel: one of the many Americans trying very hard not to be "ugly". Just because I'm carrying a US passport doesn't automatically mean I'm going to be loud and obnoxious, nor does it mean that my presence in another town is immediately resented. And by succumbing to this fear, failing to interact with people and not taking advantage of simple human interactions, I'm cheating myself out of something very important. I need to learn the freedom to walk up to anyone in any country and respectfully say to them, "My name is Lisa. I was born in America, and I realize how you may perceive my country. But I am most definitely not my government, and I want to learn, I want to grow as a person. I have the utmost respect for you, your country, your people, your culture. Please do not judge me without knowing me. Teach me, and let me share with you as well."
And for that reason, I'm putting the call out to everyone else, most especially the grumpies. Yes, the Ugly Americans are definitely out there; they've humiliated me far more than they've irritated you. But not all Americans are like that. Some of us realize the truth about our culture, and we actually don't like what we see. We're trying to learn languages and cultures, to be polite and to try new things. But we'll never grow without stepping outside of our bubble, and that requires stepping outside of the bubble. By assuming I am an uneducated, self-righteous, obnoxious American without getting to know me first is just as bad as me assuming you speak English and eat Rice-a-Roni.
We're all human; let's work together.