Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Acting like an American in Paris

Bastille Day, Paris, 1984. I’m at the Moulin Rouge in my best clothes, throwing up under the table. My companion, whom I had met on a tour, stands up to help me, but instead throws up also, all over me. Our embarrassed driver, Ali, takes us through the streets of Paris to our bus. We vomit all the way, mocked by Bastille Day revelers. It was an embarrassment of astronomical (gastronomical?) proportions.

Smithsonian.com reported yesterday on an "extremely informal" Conde Nast survey suggesting that Americans visiting abroad might not live up to the ugly American traveler stereotype. According to some of the people whom U.S. travelers encounter, anyway, we're really not "all that bad." I guess that depends on what you define as "bad." In my experience, U.S. citizens visiting other countries can embarrass us as much as any Washington political shenanigans. We all know the American stereotype—loud, boorish, uneducated. I’ve seen my countryfolk acting just that way in every country I’ve visited. As the opening paragraph must make clear, I’m certainly no exception.

In 1984, I was 16, and the Moulin Rouge serves champagne. Never should American sweet sixteen and champagne meet like that. Everyone at the table got a half-bottle each. I drank my own and my neighbor’s. My last memory just before I passed out on the table was of a semi-naked woman swimming around in a huge tank with a dolphin (I think it was a dolphin. I'm sure it was a half-naked woman). Two hours later, I awoke and put on my own eruptive performance in front of a full house of bemused tourists and Parisians. I haven’t been able to drink champagne since, but that was a tough and embarrassing lesson.

Later, as an adult, I took a group of young teenagers to Spain, joining another group of students from our area. Before leaving, we cautioned our tweens about what to wear and how to behave. Certainly, I recalled my own display years before as I discussed particulars of dress and comportment with the girls in our group. Drinking was out of the question (middle school and all). Our female students knew that shorts and short skirts would be culturally inappropriate for many of the sites we would visit, especially cathedrals. They had to order food in Spanish at restaurants. They knew how to say, “Gracias” and “por favor.”

The other group that joined our tour had obviously not had the benefit of such sage advice from teachers or parents. The students, male and female, wore cutoff denim shorts and large T-shirts with U.S.A.! in red-white-and-blue lettering. The girls often wore culturally inappropriately short skirts. They rudely talked unchecked while frustrated local guides attempted to lead our tours. Worse, shopping was their only interest. In this, they received guidance from their teacher. As we approached Toledo, her biggest worry, one that repeated itself throughout the trip, was that her students would not have the chance to shop because of siesta. The horror. Only one student in the group spoke Spanish.

A hallmark of the American traveler seems to be monolingualism. Because learning a second language still gets no real emphasis in the United States, comparatively few people from monolingual families gain facility in another idiom. In our strange education system, any intensive instruction in a second language begins in secondary school. Other countries have long recognized the benefits of early, intensive language instruction. German and Japanese students, for example, begin learning a second language (English) early in their schooling. 

Of course, language instruction and cultural instruction often go hand in hand. Understanding why one refers to a body part in Spanish using definite articles rather than personal pronouns (“the stomach,” not “my stomach”) also means understanding something about Spanish culture. Learning expressions that vary according to dialect means learning something about the geography and history that originated the differences.

Are Americans too insular in their approach to travel and learning about other countries and cultures? On the whole, I'd argue yes. I have experienced travel with students whose only dining interest was McDonalds, no matter where we were. In the McDonalds, I see other American tourists, fearful of the unfamiliar. They want the T-shirt announcing their visit—“Hard Rock Cafe, Any City”—but learning takes a back seat.

In all of my travels outside of the U.S., I find that Americans tend to want America to go with them wherever they roam. Immersion in an unfamiliar culture—in the language, geography, customs, and cuisine of a country—is a far more satisfying travel experience (to me, at least), but one many American travelers seem reluctant to explore. As always, exceptions are out there, but not in force enough to change the preconception. Perhaps my most telling experience was in China, where the American adults we encountered seemed no different from the students I observed in Spain. No interest in the regional food and very, very focused on gift shops and in particular a market where deals Beanie Babies by the bushel were of greater interest than Tiananmen Square. Beanie Babies.

Many Americans go overseas loud and rude, ignorant, and oblivious to the idea that cultures differ and offenses vary. We should know better. I should have known better in 1984. The other teacher should have known better in that summer in Spain. Those grown men and women in pursuit of Beanie Baby deals most certainly should have known better. We all should worry less about what we can buy overseas and more about what we can learn—before we go and while we're there.

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