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Traveling Abroad Forces You to Understand Criticism of the US. Here's Why That's Positive

United States Narrative
by Tim Wenger Dec 29, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Matador Network.

I’m an American who travels out of the country often. Our politics, or music, our films are broadcast all over the world, stirring up a wide range of opinions. Our political happenings are front page news around the world, and I’ve had some of the best social and political conversations of my life while abroad. Talking with people from backgrounds completely different than my own has given me a new perspective on my own life and country. Here are the ways traveling internationally has helped me understand certain criticisms of the United States.

America is very inward focused.

In May, I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia with my wife. While visiting a temple at Angkor, we were approached by a pair of Australian ladies who recognized our accents as American. They asked, without hesitation or even much of an introduction, if Donald Trump was “for real” and how he came to be so popular, despite his ridiculous and often offensive rhetoric. We were having a hard time understanding his rise ourselves, but the more I thought about it, the slogan of his campaign is the best answer there is.

The appeal of a campaign to ‘Make America Great Again’ and an overall America-first mentality with little to no regard for its effect on the rest of the world is doing nothing but furthering stereotypes about the selfishness of the United States and its citizens. The fact that Trump’s mantra gained popularity in a country where at least 64% of the population has never traveled abroad and, as evidenced by not owning a valid passport. Meanwhile, the fact that it isn’t changing anytime soon, begs the question of whether ‘stereotype’ is the right word for the situation.

Because of that, we’re sometimes perceived as rich and arrogant.

It’s not hard to be a nice person. I’ve traveled to numerous countries knowing full well that I don’t speak the language or have a firm grasp on local customs. There have been times when I’m traveling without a local or somewhere out of my comfort zone, and have had to resort to hand gestures or awkward pointing on a map to ask questions. Guess what? I’ve never heard anyone yell at me to go back where I came from.

We often value time and quantity over quality.

In Quebec City back in September, I had dinner with a group of journalists at a French restaurant called Café Du Monde. We arrived around 7. By 7:30, we were on round two of drinks and the first course of food arrived. We’d made it through onion soup and salad when the entrees arrived about 8:15, followed promptly by a topping off of the wine and a celebratory toast. By the time we stumbled out the front door, it was nearing 11:00 and I was half-cocked, trying to rouse everybody into a nightcap on the way back to the hotel. I don’t recall ever having a meal stretched that long back home. The turn-and-burn American restaurant industry frowns upon such things as lounging.

I will never forget that meal. The word “meal”, as it stands in the States, is a vast understatement to describe that night. I had an experience, and it was absolutely amazing.

Over the past couple years, I’ve worked incredibly hard to slow down certain aspects of my life. Writing, in particular. The biggest obstacle has been getting over this ingrained notion in my head that I have to get everything done as soon as possible and get on to the next assignment to maximize my revenue for the day. It’s been tough, but traveling has helped me see that it can be done and that a finished product feels so much better when I don’t have to cringe to look at it.

But in the end, America is still viewed as a sort of paradise for dreamers, where enough stubborn ambition and raw guts can make anything possible.

The fact that I’m able to write an article like this is proof of that. Upon learning that I’m American, citizens of foreign countries seem to lose any hesitation to engage me in conversation. One thing I’ve seen over and over is that Americans are seen as eternally optimistic and full of hope. I’ve heard the term ‘fearless’ used to describe us. I like that. From the view of my limited experience, it seems that if we can take an optimistic and confident approach to bettering ourselves and focusing on unity and inclusiveness instead of only looking inward, we won’t be hearing those ‘Go back where you came from’ shouts anytime soon. By making travel as available as possible to as many people as possible, and encouraging the media to dig deep enough to show the humanity of other cultures, we might even be able to silence those cries within our own borders.

By extending common courtesy to all, we can keep the dreamer’s paradise alive for generations to come. To me, there’s nothing more American than that.

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