Ahhh, the Fourth of July. The smell of burgers grilling on the open flame, the taste of buttery corn kernels crunching in your mouth, the “snap “crackle” and “pop” you hear from a distance in the sky (no guys, not Rice Krispies, fireworks!).
For many Americans, Independence Day is a day to celebrate our freedom and all the liberties we have thanks to our forefathers and the men and women who continue to fight for our country. For others, it’s a day to watch a parade and have a party.
For travelers, the day can sometimes come and go unnoticed. Eating tortellini while studying abroad in Italy or momos while volunteering in Nepal just doesn’t have the same essence of chomping down on hotdogs and potato chips (even if they are, in fact, more delicious).
But while you listen to “I’m Proud to be an American” on your commute to work in a far off land to get you in the spirit, you may start to ask yourself, “Am I really proud?”
This question can, and has, stirred a lot of thoughts amongst fellow travelers and myself. Yes, of course, we are proud of our backgrounds and where we come from. Of all the opportunity America has provided a family that came from Mexico or Eastern Europe in generations past.
Also, yes, there are times we may want to hide our faces or say “NOT ME!” when news articles of building borders and banning certain populations from entering the United States flash across the headlines.
This Fourth of July, let’s get real while we reflect on the good and the bad (and sometimes the ugly) that comes along with traveling as an American.
*NOTE: there are exceptions to every point about to be made, of course, and this is written from the perspective of a young, white-looking American traveler (though I personally identify as mixed race – Hispanic and Caucasian). These experiences and perceptions will vary for both white and non-white and any-combo-under-the-sun travelers. If you’d like to contribute an alternate perspective, contact us here.
EASE OF TRAVEL
Our passport is strong. Americans can enter 155 nations visa-free. When we do need a visa, it’s easy to pop over to the nearest embassy or mail in materials and receive a visa within weeks (sometimes days). Try telling that to someone who has to fly to another city and have an in-person interview to enter the U.S.
Our dollar is strong. In many popular destinations for young travelers, such as Thailand and South America, the exchange rate works greatly in our favor. Living expenses, food, and clothes are affordable and enable Americans to travel longer and farther.
Plenty of travel rewards. U.S. based airlines tend to have more generous mileage reward programs. U.S. based credit cards, with sign-up bonuses galore, make it even easier to rack up the miles you need for a flight. If you do your homework, it’s quite easy to obtain a free flight using miles to literally anywhere around the globe. Citizens from other countries don’t have these perks readily available to them (but don’t worry; there are other ways to fly affordably!)
English is everywhere. Even when the official language of your destination is Spanish or Thai, Americans can travel knowing that at least some locals, shopkeepers, doctors, etc. can speak English, too. English is now commonly taught in schools to better equip students for a future in our globalized world. Getting around in other countries is that much easier when you have people around you able to translate on your behalf, or at least know and understand the basics of your native language.
...AND THE BAD
No concept of the “gap year.” Step into a hostel or join a walking tour abroad, and the majority of travelers will be from Australia or Europe. There, students and young adults are encouraged to take a year to experience and explore before venturing into their next level of education or starting a career. Young Americans are led to believe a straight path from high school à college à career is THE path to take in order to be successful.
Are you jeopardizing your future by taking the time to travel? NO!
Unfortunately, our workaholic culture might tell us so (luckily sites like GoAbroad are helping us learn the benefits of meaningful travel!).
Misunderstanding and Fear. Less than 40 percent of Americans hold a U.S. passport and an even smaller percent actually travel overseas. So even if our passport is strong, we are in the minority if we choose to use it. Many family members and friends don’t understand the desire to intern in France when you could do that in your own “backyard,” let alone volunteer in South Africa or Haiti where “you could get killed.” (insert blank face). Young travelers need a lot of resiliency and self confidence to handle the lack of support and looks of doubt they may receive.
VIEWS OF AMERICANS
We’re trustworthy. Usually, when foreigners see an American, they don’t always see a threat. They typically trust our bank accounts won’t default. Some of us have the privilege of avoiding disruptive profiling or mistrust about our intentions abroad.
We’re educated. U.S. universities are known for their prestige. When you travel abroad to intern, work, or volunteer you’ll often be trusted and valued due to the expectation that you have received a quality education. You will also always have an opportunity to fill the high-need of English tutoring.
The “land of opportunity.” In developing countries specifically, telling someone you are from America sometimes brings a smile and fascination to their face. They ask questions and are in awe of the “American Dream” you must be living. No matter if it’s true or not, it does give you a feeling of pride to see the respect they have for your country.
...AND THE BAD...
We’re loaded. From scam artists to your new friend down the street, people see Americans and assume we have money. You’ll be a target due to your clothes and accent, and you will be surprised when others find it hard to believe you are literally spending all your savings (and more) to be abroad. Not all of us are trust-fund kids; we just really value the experience more than the dollar sign.
We’re promiscuous. Movies, music, and advertisements sexualize American women. We let go of our inhibitions, seduce men, and flaunt our bodies. Media isn’t real, but unfortunately, especially in more conservative countries, this image makes many believe that American women do indeed want sexual attention, and are OK when you give it to them. We’re not. Let’s just leave it at that.
We love guns. Stats make it evident that mass shootings, school shootings, and gun deaths in the U.S. are sky-high compared to other countries. Politics make it clear Americans are not about to give up an ounce of their gun rights regardless. You may be surprised the first time you are asked if you own a gun or if it is legal to pull out a gun on a cop (true question), but after you learn about gun laws in different places and see what’s being portrayed in the news, you’ll sigh, curse the fact that their questions make sense, and explain as best as you can the controversy we have.
...AND THE UGLY
We’re arrogant. We live in the best country on the planet, right? That is what we are taught to believe. And some of us do walk around the world acting like it. Those of us who have escaped the brainwashing have to work even harder to show that no, we don’t think our shh don’t stink.
We’re self-centered. Surprised when you went to Spain and not everyone could reply to you in English?
Or when you went to help the kids in Africa and were asked what kind of impact you think you really can make in one week? Not everyone wants to learn English and not everyone is waiting for the white American to come save the day. Americans who travel, even with the best intentions and open-mind, have to constantly face this stereotype and need to do their research before traveling to counter it.
We’re ignorant. We can blame the news for not being more internationally informative or we can blame ourselves for not seeking out the stories, either way, the truth is that most Americans do not know what’s going on in the world. Getting into a political conversation with someone while volunteering in India, having him school you on your own politics, and then not being able to even tell him what type of government his country has is kind of (ok really) embarrassing. It’s hard to justify WHY we don’t know the history, geography, or important news stories of other countries. “We never had to learn” doesn’t really cut it.
So maybe there’s a different question I can ask. Am I thankful to be an American?
I’m sure most of us can say, in unison, YES! Personally, I’ve had opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and a family that was able to provide my sister and me a quality life regardless of our circumstances.
Am I proud? That can still be hard to answer. As we travel, as we experience life in a rural village in Kenya or in a city in Denmark, the pedestal we’ve placed America on can either rise or fall. You start to see all that America has and all that America lacks. You begin to notice that the “equal opportunity” boasted about in our country is not all that equal.
I’ll leave the answer to the question up to you. What I do know is that we should keep traveling.
The more we travel, the more we learn, and the more we are able to break away from the negative stereotypes (or hard truths) that exist.
As students, interns, volunteers, and international workers, it is up to us share the positives of America with others, and bring the positives from the world back home. On the 4th of July, my fellow travelers, let’s celebrate this!