Where ARE you from? Handling Anti-Americanism When You Travel

“Americans are so rude.”

I received this bulletin some years ago, at a wedding feast in a hillside ristorante in Trieste, Italy, from a supremely self-assured Austrian journalist. Pots overflowing with purple and red flowers hung from an awning framing the Adriatic Sea. “The first question Americans always ask,” she continued, recovering her expelled breath with long drags from her cigarette, “is, ‘What do you do?’ As if that’s so much more important than who you are!”

I had not, in fact, asked her profession, nor did I recall inviting her to ruin my favorite part of any big meal — the aftermath — with an unvarnished bashing of all things American. But I wasn’t surprised: By that point, some version of her refrain had become a regular feature of my travels abroad.

Bars and cafes from Wicklow to Winnipeg, museums and hiking paths from Bolivia to Bali, surf breaks and shopping malls from Costa Rica to Cape Town — no sanctuary was safe from America-the-Terrible slurs.

“The problem with you guys,” pronounced a ruddy-faced Brit in a Lima seviche bar, “is that you’re so entitled, with your SUVs and your giant lawns and your expectation that the world owes you something.” He awaited my reaction with a sidelong glance and healthy pull from his beer.

 If you travel outside this country and assign any time to connecting with strangers, you’ve probably heard similar sentiments. It is popular sport, or at least it was, when we were the undisputed heavyweight champs of the world, to denigrate the Land of the Free as unsophisticated, fashion-challenged, diet- and fitness-obsessed (yet, somehow, obese) and blaringly unsubtle.

And for a long while, particularly early in my traveling days, I had a response ready for almost any attack on my homeland: unqualified concurrence.

“Totally agree,” I’d say, oozing certitude. “We’re selling the unattainable dream! It’s work, work, work, money uber alles and we’re all bitter and unfulfilled.” Pause for effect. Continue: “Now you guys, you do it right — working to live instead of living to work.”

I wince at many of these memories, but my stance was triple- edged: I eschew confrontation, and a reliable tactic for disarming an attacker is to take his side. Two: The unexpected answer is a fun trick shot in conversation with strangers. Three: To be honest, I often meant what I said.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, America-the-Collective still — still! — struts around clucking that we are greatest/most resilient/hardest-working/most innovative nation on Earth. And, to give my chain-smoking Austrian assailant some due, I do take issue with our dronelike devotion to our jobs: It is no surprise that many of us equate what you do with who you are. But, like any massive group of human beings, we are smart, stupid, driven, lazy, honest, corrupt, insightful, obtuse, compassionate, cruel, fascinating, dull, fun, boring and every gradient in between.

To be clear, I have never actively denied my heritage, although I considered it in 1983, when a backpacker in Salzburg, Austria, told me to sew a Canadian flag on my pack because “everyone hates Americans.” But I don’t flaunt it, either.

What occurred to me slowly over the years was that most anti-Americanism I encountered came from other travelers, foreigners themselves in the land we were visiting who were almost certainly projecting onto the U.S. of A. their own insecurities and rigidity. As my mom has always said: The surest sign of a cultured person is one who gets along with anyone, anywhere, regardless of class or background.

 One can take this too far, as I did on a certain weekend in 1989, by agreeing to walk a freshly paroled prisoner to her home on the far side of an unfamiliar project in New Orleans at 2 a.m. and then attempting to hitchhike back to a buddy’s house without a working knowledge of the city. As my mom also often says, you live and learn.

What I usually get from locals in foreign lands is openness, baseline enthusiasm toward Americans and, often, a startling knowledge of our country. On a township tour east of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1998, our guide, upon learning where we were from, raised an eyebrow: “Ah, yes, home of The Washington Post!” For you younger readers, it is worth noting that this exchange was all the more impressive, as it occurred before most people in the world had even heard of the Internet.

Of course I encounter frustrating stereotypes, such as the refusal to serve the white guy anything legitimately spicy and the belief that all Americans not only are Oprah-wealthy, but also have come to the dusty end of the road to empty our pockets into the locals’ outstretched hands. By any comparison, of course, we are wealthy, although any attempt to selectively share those riches on the spot will quickly render us broke.

Perhaps best to travel forth knowing we are all part of the same giant family, with all its joys, annoyances and middling moments. Like when we are really tired of standing in a stalled line at Heathrow Airport, and we recline on the floor, in shorts, and our wife sighs, “That’s so American. I don’t think you realize how offensive that is to Europeans.”

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