“Where are you from?”
“United States,” I answered.
“Ahh, I have family in the States,” the Scottish backpacker told me.
One Frenchman, two Aussies, an English traveler, the Scottish backpacker and his Polish-Scottish girlfriend, and Jordan and I made up the dinner table. We scooped up salsa and guacamole, all intent on enjoying the Mexican dinner we were splitting.
A few minutes later, the Scot smiled condescendingly and asked, “So, is this your first time out of the country?”
“Why, no,” I replied with a smile. I listed off several, not all, of the countries I had been to. “Why do you ask if this is my first time? Because I’m American?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Americans don’t travel. I read some deplorable statistic that only 30 percent of Americans even have a passport.”
I bristled at his underlying accusation. “It is true that Americans don’t travel much, and that is something I wish was different about my country.”
“So you don’t travel much either?” he interrupted.
“I’m not a typical American,” I admitted. “I have a master’s in International Affairs and hope to work internationally. I travel quite a bit.” And then I tried to get back on track. “One reason Americans don’t travel much is that the country is huge.”
Jordan jumped in at this point. “We have one of the largest countries in the world,” he said. “And we have fifty states. It’s a common desire to visit all 50 states. It’s something we haven’t done yet. Hawaii and Alaska are expensive and hard to get to.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” the Australians put in.
He was not impressed by that goal. He actually snorted.
As the conversation continued, the Scot told us how idiotic former Pres. Bush was and how he couldn’t believe Americans voted for him, how guns are terrible and how the American Constitution wasn’t very useful and should be changed more frequently. He eventually went on to criticize all Israelis and all French, so I suppose I shouldn’t feel too singled out. However, it was very frustrating to be on the receiving end of stereotypes.
A week ago we ran into a born and bred upstate New Yorker that was excited to move to the City. He was interesting to talk to and overall a good guy, but he was utterly convinced Southerners were all religious fanatics, uneducated, and relatively dishonest. While we had a pleasant time with him (mostly) I did get very annoyed with the fact that he wanted to lump millions of people across multiple States into one rather negative personality.
“Well, yes, Southerners don’t tend to be blunt,” I agreed with him, “but that’s because we value traditional manners and a proper way to say things. The meaning gets across in a gentler way,” I said.
The New Yorker brushed my explanation off with, “there’s always some truth behind stereotypes.”
And while that is true, it’s can be very hurtful and damaging to immediately assume certain things about person just because they come from a certain corner of the world.
In fact, this trip has reinforced in my mind how similar people are, not how different. One of my favorite parts about the trip has been meeting fellow travelers. Right now we’re at a hostel with a ridiculous amount of Germans (seriously, I’ve never been around this many Germans outside of Germany), a Norwegian couple, Aussies, a fellow American, and a French guy that I’m halfway certain is on crack. I learned today about Norwegian grammar and how different/similar it is to Icelandic, German, Danish, and Swedish. I got both a Scottish and English opinion on the Scottish referendum, and yesterday I learned that Australia makes voting mandatory and adoption ridiculously difficult. Through all of my interactions with locals and fellow travelers, I’ve learned what Scout meant in To Kill A Mockingbird: “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” New Yorker, Arkansan, French, Finnish, Kiwi, or Bolivian, we all want the same things in life. We want to be known and loved more than anything. We want our life to have meaning and we want to see the world around us. We want to feel smart and respected. We want our country and culture looked well upon. The differences in our cultures, our communication styles, and our values do no negate any of these deeply-held desires that are common throughout human nature, rather they are just different ways to express the same things.
Yes, there is some truth to stereotypes. But acting as if these images we have of other people we have never met are always accurate representations hurts us all. The New Yorker who was very blatant with his condescension toward his own countrymen hurt me by invalidating my opinion of my own life, my own neighbors, and my own values. He created division where I think very little is—after all, we are both Americans. The Scot insulted me by assuming I was a stupid American who had never left her country. I’m a big girl; while I was offended by both of these interactions, I’ll survive. I didn’t lose any sleep over these men. But they also hurt themselves by cutting me off. They wouldn’t listen to my explanation of my culture, my country. They missed out on learning why people like me do the things they do. They missed out on understanding a different part of the world (which should embarrass them because they both present themselves as open-minded travelers that want to learn about other places). They missed out on making a friend.
I should add, at this point, that when Jordan and I left on the trip I was fairly nervous about how to best represent my country. I know all the negative stereotypes about stupid, fat Americans, and I was (and am) determined to combat that. But so far, after about three and a half months of traveling, these are the first two negative responses I have had. Almost everyone I have met, from Egyptians to Greeks to Argentineans to Kiwis have been wonderfully kind people that conversed with me in a welcome, open manner. They did not hold my nationality against me, nor the actions of my government. All but two people I have met have understood that just because I come from the United States does not make me synonymous with my government’s political decisions, and I have returned the favor. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised with how many people didn’t bat an eyelash when we admitted we were from the States, particularly in the Middle East.
So yeah, sometimes stereotypes are fun to bring up, to toss around as a joke, to examine the histories behind them, but they should in no way influence our behavior toward another person, especially one we’ve just met. That prejudice plays heavily into sexism and racism (and all the other isms, I suppose). In the end, we’re all alike. We’re all people. We’re all looking for the same things in life, if not in the same places. We were all created in the image of God.
We’re all just folks.