Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tourism gets in the way

When I came to the United States, it was to do a Master's degree. I could have done that in the UK, though quite frankly at the time it would have been harder to find the funding to do it there. One of the main reasons I chose to do it here was because it gave me the chance to live in the United States for a while. Having spent a year living and studying in France, I realized that being a tourist and living somewhere were very different experiences. My family had never gone on package tours when we travelled to France. We went camping and shopped locally. We had more of an 'authentic' experience than many tourists. But it still wasn't the same as actually being immersed in the language and culture.

Rick Steves, an American travel writer, is the antithesis of ethnocentric and his mission is to encourage people to travel and learn that the way they live is not the only way to live. He writes guidebooks and has a travel show on TV encouraging people to travel independently, off the beaten path, and get to know the place they are visiting. (As a savvy business man, however, he does offer guided tours to Europe whilst touting how different they are from 'regular' tours!)

When asked in a recent interview , "
What's the most important thing people can learn from traveling?" he responded:
A broader perspective. They can see themselves as part of a family of humankind. It's just quite an adjustment to find out that the people who sit on toilets on this planet are the odd ones. Most people squat. You're raised thinking this is the civilized way to go to the bathroom. But it's not. It's the Western way to go to the bathroom. But it's not more civilized than somebody who squats. A man in Afghanistan once told me that a third of this planet eats with spoons and forks, and a third of the planet eats with chopsticks, and a third eats with their fingers. And they're all just as civilized as one another.
In the same interview, he commented:
A lot of Americans comfort themselves thinking, "Well, everybody wants to be in America because we're the best." But you find that's not true in countries like Norway, Belgium or Bulgaria. I remember a long time ago, I was impressed that my friends in Bulgaria, who lived a bleak existence, wanted to stay there. They wanted their life to be better but they didn't want to abandon their country. That's a very powerful Eureka! moment when you're traveling: to realize that people don't have the American dream. They've got their own dream. And that's not a bad thing. That's a good thing.
And that's why I call myself 'Almost American' - because so many of the Americans I've met have never travelled and simply cannot understand why everyone wouldn't want to be American. (Yet, at the same time they are angry at the number of people who want so badly to be here that they enter the country illegally!) Rick Steves wants Americans to
get over themselves. He wants us to please shed our geographic ego. "Everybody should travel before they vote," he has written.
It's unrealistic of course, but wouldn't that be nice?


Expat mum said...

I so agree with you. I am trying to plant subliminal messages into the Queenager's brain to take a year off before going to college. I would fund it fer crying out loud. She's well travelled anyway, but there's no way it's going to happen because Americans just don't do it.
I also remember when I had English au pairs years ago. They used to get so annoyed because all the guys they met (American) thought they were only after a green card.

ADDY said...

Not only should they travel but try to speak the local language even if it just a few words. How despised Americans abroad in particular are when they shout their instructions in English at poor foreigners and expect them to understand.

Almost American said...

Expat mum - maybe if the idea of a gap year doesn't go over well, she'll at least contemplate a semester or a year abroad!

Rosiero, yes, I didn't say it but I think having to speak another language should be part of the experience. (And English vs. American doesn't count!)

Michelloui said...

I love Rick's books! ANd I think Gap Years are one of the best things about the UK education culture. I wish I had a gap year, I might have been better prepared for the adult world. My step daughter is approaching her gap year and my advice--do as much as you can! And I think she is planning on it.

Great post. And thanks for your posts on my site. Yes, I know what you mean by being 'almost' American (or British, in my case). I have only recently started my blog during a stint on the sofa after a foot op, and when I decided to focus on being expat at first I felt almost fraudulent! 'Am I really still considered an expat?' Yet at the same time, identifying myself as an expat, with a 'mid-atlantic accent' has been a reassuring pigeon hole to slip into. Im still struggling with explaining that one, but it is an interesting experience.

My dad would be horrified if he knew I questioned my American identity, and yet, what am I? I moved over here the summer I graduated from my first degree and have been here ever since. A friend of mine is moving to the States and I has been telling me all kinds of things about her house and neighbourhood that I couldn't even recognise. It felt strange to realise that almost 20 years later, I might not feel so at home there any more. I have visited about every 18 months to 2 years, but those are holidays, not long-term living experiences.

How often do you make it back to the UK? Do you find yourself defending Americans? When you visit the UK to you say you're going 'home'? And when you return to your American home, do you have a couple of weeks or so of bad homesickness, or a mini culture shock experience or are you just relived to be in your own house again?

It's interesting to meet my opposite in the States! Thanks for stopping by, I'll add you to my list of blogs if you dont mind.

Iota said...

I love that tradition we have in Britain of the gap year. Just traveling for the sake of adventure, and because you're at a stage in life when it's easier to do.

I think we're harsh in our judgment of Americans though. For Brits, especially in the south east, other countries, other cultures, are so accessible. In America, you have to go to another continent to experience a different culture. That makes it a bigger effort and more expensive, and of course they don't really have enough annual holiday to do that.

Carolyn said...

I just found your blog and this post really resonates with me. I recently wrote something similar based on my experience in Sydney and Asia Pacific for the past 14 years (will attach link if of interest).

(My post 'U.S. Airlines, Infrastructure, and Attitude

I look forward to exploring your blog!

Cheers from Sydney (and sometimes Paris)

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