On Being an Ambassador for my Country

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There are some moments while traveling when I find that I’m almost embarrassed to be an American. I am grateful for the many things that my birthright has given me, don’t get me wrong–I have a passport that allows me to go most anywhere in the world without hassle, and I was lucky enough to be born in a country where I’ve been afforded great opportunity for success both as a person, and as a woman. No–it’s not those things I’m embarrassed about. It’s the feeding into stereotypes; our politics; and the events that take place in my country (and ultimately the reaction to those events) that I find so embarrassing, and oftentimes, so hard to defend.

It’s always been my belief that when you travel abroad, you should behave as an ambassador for your country, but when you don’t agree with most of what’s going on in your nation, it can be very difficult.

The first time I traveled abroad was to Italy in 2006. George W. Bush was president, and the view of the United States was pretty bad–we were knee-deep in a war with no real end in sight; and we were always in everyone else’s business–policing other nations even when they didn’t want or need it. Politics, at this point in my life, really interested me–I was a fiery early-20-something who saw people my age being sent to slaughter in war, I was mortified by our choice of president, and I was embarrassed by the ways in which things were run in my country.

I knew that I would encounter some people along my travels who only knew the stereotypes of Americans and what they’ve seen on TV (be it the news or fantastic shows such as Baywatch). What I didn’t know at the time was how to deal with and counteract those stereotypes.

The first moment I can really remember being embarrassed, but also somewhat indignant, was in Italy that summer. A few Italian guys invited a couple classmates and me over for a home-cooked meal in the courtyard at their apartment. For all intents and purposes, it was a lovely evening of sitting under trees decorated with Christmas lights, sharing bottles of wine, laughing and practicing our Italian, and getting to know one another. But there was one particular guy there who, upon finding out I was the sole American at the soiree, decided I wasn’t even worth a second thought. I was American–therefore, I was a boorish, ignorant person who blindly followed the politics of my government without ever having questioned its decisions. I wanted so badly to make him talk to me, to make him question me about my beliefs and my stances on what we were doing in my country because I was convinced he would like me then (also, if you hadn’t picked up on it, I was overly concerned about ensuring that everyone liked me at this point in my life). But I had to break the ice, and I did it with The Simpsons. Just mentioning that I liked the show in conversation with another person made him chime in and when the conversation moved on from there to me being American and to George W. Bush and the war, I was able to give him my viewpoints–that I didn’t agree with the President or with the war, and that not all Americans agree with everything our government does. It was then that he seemed satisfied in speaking to me, and in knowing that not all Americans (and Texans) are like George W. Bush.

Fast forward to now, 2013. Politically, things have turned around a bit in the United States and I think we’re at least in a bit of a better standing with more countries than we were in 2006, but the perception is still not great.

Last week I was staying in a hostel in Edinburgh for a few nights and, in just five short days, I met people from all over the world–Canada, China, Kazakhstan, Australia, Germany, and Vietnam. I was the only American, again, so there were a lot of questions and comments made, from the run-of-the-mill “what’s it really like?” to the “I don’t think I want to go to America.” I’m always curious why people don’t want to visit the United States, since it seems like such a hotbed for tourists from around the world.

My conversation with the Vietnamese guy (who hadn’t been to the US and didn’t want to go, despite his mother having been and pushing him to study there) went like this:

Me: So you said you don’t want to go to the US, and I’m curious why you don’t.

Him: America is dangerous.

Me: Dangerous.. how?

Him: Doesn’t everyone own a gun? I could get shot anywhere I go. I cannot defend myself against big guys with guns. And look at how many countries hate you.. Afghanistan, Pakistan. They could attack you and I might be there and just get killed.

Me: Okay, it’s not actually that scary. Not everyone owns a gun. People aren’t just walking down the street waving guns around. And terrorist attacks have happened in other countries too–there was one in the UK (where he’s been studying for a year) a couple of years ago.

Thinking that maybe I’d convinced him that the US wasn’t quite as scary as perhaps the news conveys it to be, I went to sleep satisfied that I’d been a good little American ambassador. The next day, plastered all over the news was the mass shooting at the Navy Yard. Everything I’d said to that guy the night before had gone out the window. America is dangerous. Perhaps it’s not any more or less dangerous than other places in the world, but how can I really tell someone, “sure, go to the US. I promise you won’t get randomly shot while walking down the street”?

While I don’t want this post to turn into a discussion on politics and gun control laws, these are a few examples of why I find it difficult to defend my nation sometimes. When being an ambassador, there’s a fine line to walk between being proud of and defending everything  your country does, and being embarrassed and stating all the reasons it might suck. In general, I answer with honesty every question I am asked, but also ensure that the person I’m talking to knows that my opinion is not necessarily representative of my country’s. It’s okay for me to be an American and to not agree with everything my country does or stands for, and I want to let inquiring minds know that. I want to ensure that the stereotypes portrayed on TV aren’t perpetuated by me or those with whom I travel.

As I said when I started this post–I am lucky to be an American, but that doesn’t always mean I am proud to be one.

27 thoughts on “On Being an Ambassador for my Country

  1. Being a Polish girl in Armenia

    random person: Where are you from?
    zof: From Poland
    random person: Oh, so you hate Russians!

    I’m having this conversation everyday.
    This is exhausting.
    And, by the way, my best friend is Russian.

    I feel for you:-)

    • I can only imagine, Zof! It’s interesting how people just jump to conclusions about who you are as a person and what your beliefs are all based upon where you are from. As if everyone from a particular nation is the exact same!

  2. Anyone who thinks everyone in a country supports their leaders and blindly goes along with everything is an uneducated person. I would’ve told that Italian guy that. I’ve voted for presidential candidates of both parties, and I can say I strongly disagree with things those candidates believed in. Maybe because I’m pushing 40 and don’t give a F, but I just don’t give a flip about this kind of stuff anymore and I’ll happily tell someone in another country that’s how I feel. I’m an ambassador for myself these days. The good ol U.S. of A doesn’t need me preaching its gospel. This probably comes across the wrong way. I do think it’s unfortunate the way Americans are thought of in other countries. I try not to act like a rude American wherever I’m at, be it Memphis or France. I can’t control what others think, nor do I care to.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..Discover New Mexico OutdoorsMy Profile

    • That’s a good attitude, Lance–you’re unable to control others’ thoughts, so why let their thoughts bother you? I guess I’m still ever the optimist, hoping that I can at least turn one person’s opinion of the States or of Americans around. But then again, sometimes our government and our people make it very difficult to have a fighting chance at changing opinions.. It’s sad, really.

  3. “Does everyone have a gun?” was the number one question among my wide-eyed Chinese/Korean students and co-workers too. It was hard for me to argue to them, living in countries where even the police may not be armed, that the US is no more dangerous than any other place, when there are sometimes shootings in my college campus neighborhood and my older brother got held up at gunpoint in our hometown. But as one of my adult Asian students joked, “We have knives.” Danger is relative.

    • You’re right–danger is relative. I don’t think the world is as scary a place as sometimes people make it out to be, but there’s definitely reason to be cautious and alert to things. I just don’t believe that the fear should stop you from going to a particular place (unless, of course, we’re talking a war zone).

  4. I find the involuntarily ambassador thing tough too. It’s definitely easier for me being a Canadian, but I find it so weird that people want to know where I come from so that they can make assumptions about who I am based on it. There are all kinds of people in Canada, with all kinds of different opinions about everything – I think the same goes for any country. Our nationality definitely influences us, but I don’t think it’s as significant as many people make it out to be.
    Jessica recently posted..8 Things That Every Traveler Should Do in ThailandMy Profile

    • No, definitely not! It’s funny–I was having this conversation with a couple of travel bloggers from Canada, and they were telling me about some of the stereotypes they got when they met a group of children in, I want to say Africa. They’d only known Canadians from various TV shows, so their views were horribly skewed and couldn’t have been more off! (But it was a funny interaction for the bloggers, because they were totally confused as to where the stereotypes came from!)

  5. It amazes me every time when people assume Americans are ignorant douchebags. When half the people I talk to who aren’t American are just as “ignorant” as the people they proclaim to hate. You’re going to hate on a place you’ve never been and assume the worst? Isn’t that what Americans supposedly do? This American certainly hasn’t.
    Nicole recently posted..That’s GhettoMy Profile

    • Exactly! I mean, I’ve run into plenty of horrendous American tourists in my travels abroad, but I’ve also met equally as horrendous foreigners too. I think it’s easy to make up your mind about a place you’ve never been, but for me, I at least want to give the place a chance before I write it off completely!

    • I think that’s a great way of doing it, Karisa! If people get to know you on a more personal level, it helps them realize that you’re not all that different from how they are.

  6. Great points about being an American abroad. I think that’s one of the best reasons to go abroad, particularly for a longer stretch of time, because non-Americans can give us such needed perspectives on how we look to the rest of the world. It’s too easy to forget how other people see the US and its actions – and for others to forget that we don’t all agree with everything that our government does.

    Thanks for this post!
    Kara recently posted..Culture Shock on Return to the USMy Profile

    • Thanks for the comment, Kara! I am surprised at how much I have learned from others while being out on the road. Things that I either missed on the news or just weren’t picked up on US news channels–so that aspect of it has been really enlightening for me!

  7. Being a Brit in Europe is embarrassing – everyone thinks we’re either drunken, uneducated louts, or prudish, humourless toffs. Eurgh.

    I have to say, the USA confounded the stereotypes I had of it for the most part, although I DID feel unsafe in D.C. and Atlanta. I felt safer when I went to Colombia for one month.

    Being an ambassador for wherever we come from is important, especially given the power the media has to influence our ideas about people of certain nationalities. Right now, the UK media is portraying Romania in an incredibly poor light, which bugs me so much, as during the 2 weeks I spent in Romania, I was wowed by how friendly and honest the people there are.

    • Tom, it’s funny that you say you felt safer in Colombia than in DC or Atlanta–I’ve often felt safer in foreign countries than in my own, so I know what you mean.

      I agree with you that it’s incredibly frustrating to see how the media portrays certain countries/cultures/religions/groups of people and how we just blindly follow and assume that the news is always correct. I wish more people would start making up their own minds based off of experience and research rather than assuming everything they hear from the media is gospel.

  8. It’s pretty funny that an Italian was looking down on America’s politics and representatives!

    I can relate to this post a lot. Being British we face a lot of stereotypes. It can be infuriating that if we do things we’re “proving” stereotypes, but if the locals do them that’s fine. On my erasmus in Milan, there were plenty of drunk nights. But although the crowd was as Spanish/Italian/French as British, we Brits were “typical English”. Likewise when I stayed in a small Italian village, I was “typical English” for wearing a (knee length, no cleavage) sundress in 30 degree heat, but the local girls in hotpants were A-OK.

    People are going to have stereotypes about your country, and all you can do is be the best representative you can be. If they think you boorish/ignorant for being American when you prove otherwise, you have to have the confidence to know they’re the ones with the problem.

    It’s also a fact that not every tourist realises they represent their whole country. The stereotypes exist for a reason, and all you can do is do your part to challenge it. It’s offensive when people say “You don’t act like a British person”, but equally you ruin all your own good work (in the eyes of the locals) if you push too hard the point that YOU are the typical British person, not their stereotypes. It’s a catch-22, but hopefully enough experience with polite Brits/Americans/Aussies will eventually have an effect!

    • Amy, you make a valid point about the delicate balance you face when trying to prove that you are the typical example of what people from your country are like. I’ve actually never really heard that stereotype about Brits–they always just seem so posh to me. ;) Someone did tell me on my recent travels though, that Aussies were the WORST tourists they’d ever encountered. I felt a bit better that it wasn’t the Americans that time around..

  9. This was a really interesting read and take on this. I’m usually, at the risk of sounding like a complete and total cliché, pretty proud to be an American. Granted you’ve traveled much more than I have–I’ve been to Ireland and Iceland, both of which I found had pretty favorable/open views of Americans.

    At the same time I feel much more embarrassed for those who are ignorant enough to think that way about such a large and diverse country. I feel like there’s such a difference in culture/views/traditions etc between where I grew up in Northeastern PA versus where I am now in Lancaster that I could only imagine how different It would be, for say out west or in the deep south. “American” is such a generalized term.
    Pat recently posted..5 Ideas for Staying in Shape This WinterMy Profile

    • You’re right–I also feel sort of embarrassed for the generalized views that foreigners have about Americans, but at the same time, I think we overly generalize things about various countries/cultures too. We are a varied country, but I think foreigners only really know what they see on TV, and unfortunately, a lot of times the shows they see are ones that don’t exactly paint us in a good light. It’s either that or the news–which might even be worse!

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  12. I often get mistaken for an American abroad… And the shift in attitude when people realize I’m Canadian is crazy! I’ve always thought it must be difficult to actually be from the USA and deal with all the negative stereotypes people have of your country, but the best thing you can do to prove them wrong is to be yourself. Most Americans aren’t gun-slinging, McDonald’s guzzling idiots (especially not the ones who travel) and if people meet enough decent Americans, they’ll probably end up changing their minds. And if not, they’re too close-minded to bother with. :)

    • Thanks for your comment, Nikita! And I agree–if people actually met Americans and took the time to get to know them while traveling, I think they’d realize that most of us aren’t the stereotypes they see on TVs/in movies!

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