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10 Lessons You'll Learn as a First-Time American Traveler

by Steph Glaser Jan 21, 2014
1. It doesn’t matter that you’re American.

When East German border guards tromped through the tight train corridor, stopped my study abroad program director, and pantomimed the click of a camera, I knew I’d messed up. Big time. Just moments earlier, as the train slowly rolled across the border from West Germany into East Germany and communism, I’d snapped a picture of a patrol tower. Really bad move. It was 1989, during the Cold War, and I’d left the flash on.

While ultimately nothing resulted from my minor lapse in judgement (7 months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’m guessing the East German government had more pressing matters than throwing me in a gulag), at the very least it was a major reality check: It didn’t matter that I was an American and guaranteed unalienable rights in the US. I was an American in a communist country, and border guards in East Germany didn’t have to acknowledge my freedom of expression or any other US First Amendment rights.

2. We don’t have the greatest rep.

It’s hard to face sometimes, when coming from a country that celebrates itself, that the rest of the world doesn’t adore the US. Our foreign policies and the legacies of our unpopular wars and international “incidents” understandably have pissed off a lot of people.

Controversial drone strikes in the Middle East and the NSA’s enthusiasm for spying on world leaders have not helped either. When traveling, be prepared to discuss our government’s latest shenanigans. Also, with all the senseless mass shootings in recent years, you’ll probably be asked if you own a gun and your stance on guns. You learn not to get defensive…when people have a problem, it’s usually with the US government and not with individual citizens.

3. But you kinda still represent McDonald’s.

Most people will refrain from holding you personally responsible for the decisions of the US government, but you’re not totally off the hook. Many people think we’re ethnocentric, materialistic, and envision us with those massive wagging foam fingers screaming “We’re Number One!” or shoving old ladies around to get the cheapest toaster oven during a Black Friday frenzy.

I once asked my Dutch friend, Ernst, what he thought about Americans. His response: “Americans are fat, eat at McDonald’s, and drive big cars.” I made it a point never to eat a Big Mac around Ernst.

4. Some countries actually LIKE the US, or at least our pop culture.

As an American traveler, you might feel the urge to be apologetic or keep your identity on the down-low. Perhaps you’ve considered hot glue gunning a maple leaf patch to your backpack (don’t do it).

But before going overboard with mea culpas, realize that many cultures appreciate Americans. In Indonesia, where Barack Obama lived during part of his childhood, my husband and I ran into locals who chanted “USA” and gave us the thumbs up when they found out our nationality. Some countries even revere American pop culture. Check out how many magazines on international newsstands keep up with the Kardashians. And let’s not forget the lasting impact of Baywatch.

And apparently, our accents aren’t always nails on a chalkboard. My Australian friend, Nicole, assured me, “I love listening to you talk…I feel like I’m at the movies.”

5. The rules change.

In the US, you know you can drive 60 in a 55mph zone and not get a speeding ticket and that, as a pedestrian, you generally can cross the street with little hassle on a red light. But when traveling outside the US, you won’t know the laws, customs, or the consequences.

Try jaywalking in Germany. There’s nothing like being the target of a Teutonic tirade by a hunched old man who actually waves his cane at you when you cross an empty street against the light. Or try to take a photo of your friends pretending to kiss a Buddha statue in devoutly Buddhist Sri Lanka, and then develop the photos at a shop where the clerk will notify local authorities about the offense.

6. Hold your mom’s hand when crossing crazy streets.

Jaywalking may never be an issue when the street is too terrifying to cross in the first place. In some cities, the volume of vehicles and lack of discernible traffic rules are intimidating. Saigon, for example, is famous for tentacles of traffic with weaving motorbikes, cyclos, buses, and cars all beeping incessantly. In some countries, along with vehicles, you may also need to yield to cows, water buffalo, or elephants.

Or it might just be the direction cars are driving that freaks you out as an American traveler. In London, paranoia about crossing streets comes easily when you almost get sideswiped by one of the city’s trademark black cabs. Remember to look right and then left, or just keep looking side to side until you get across the street.

7. Cover up, even in heinous humidity.

Lounging in a bikini or board shorts may be acceptable at many beaches, but once you go into town and, more importantly, into a temple, church, or mosque, you need to cover up. Even if the heat is unbearably heavy, respect the local culture.

And it’s not just Muslim countries that have cover-up codes. Eastern Orthodox churches often require that women wear headscarves and cover their legs. Some religious sites may have baskets of backup skirts for you to borrow. Wearing a scratchy burlap frock to enter a Greek Orthodox Church, I witnessed a moving christening take place. While it was worth every itchy moment, I would have been better off bringing along my own lightweight long skirt. In many places, you can buy sarongs, scarves, or saris at local markets.

8. The customer isn’t always right.

Customer service (or lack thereof) isn’t universal. At some shops owners barely acknowledge your existence, while in others you may not be left alone. And when you’re at a market or bazaar, bargaining is the name of the game and is a completely normal part of shopping in many countries.

Also, despite paying entrance fees that may be significantly higher than locals’ rates at famous tourist spots, you still need to wait in line just like everybody else. Patience is key.

9. You’ll reconsider saying you’re “poor.”

Once you see a child playing with a dirty sock as a toy, or you drive by a shantytown lined with houses made of rusty strips of corrugated metal and soggy cardboard boxes, it’s hard to complain about your own finances. Poverty exists everywhere, but sometimes it’s more overt in other nations. For the first-timer American traveler, it can be overwhelming, shocking, and emotional.

Bedraggled children may confront you and ask for money. Many travelers debate how to handle this scenario, and while some say that giving to begging kids continues the vicious cycle, I cracked and gave a few dollars to a crying child with amputated legs in Mexico. But then I turned around to see more children who, while not disabled, had the same desperate looks.

10. You may turn into that American traveler.

Ultimately, as enlightened and adventurous as you think you are, you may go to the dark side. Jet lag, humidity, homesickness, missed rides, mysterious meals, and miscommunications can sometimes gang up on you and make you a less than pleasant visitor. You may find yourself loudly telling an Athens airport ticket counter clerk who won’t let you check in late for your flight home that her country’s transportation system (with the exception of the island ferries) “totally sucks.” Cringe.

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