AMERICA ISN’T THE whole world. When I first taught English in Korea, I already had a few years living abroad, but I still succumbed to typical expat behavior in my first months, when I drank too much soju and didn’t notice just how loudly I was speaking to my friend on the bus. In response, the driver jerked the bus off the road, jumped out of his seat, stood directly in front of my friend and me, and gave us a lecture in Korean. I had no idea what he really said, but the message was clear: STFU or get off my bus.
It wasn’t that Korea is such a quiet country: the practice is just to stay silent on buses and train. We Americans are a loud people, and this is rarely appreciated once we move beyond our borders. Add some alcohol to the mix, and we’re a loud, belligerent people who aren’t appreciated on a long bus journey — or even a short one.
Fighting the urge to be American
This wasn’t the first time I let my American side take over. When I first taught English in Japan, I had never spent more than a few weeks out of my home country. I was slowly dying every day in the typical Japanese office space. Nearly all offices in Japan are kept at a tropical 28 degrees Celsius (82 F) during the summer. Did I calmly ask the manager if we could turn the thermostat down to 25? Did I suck it up and accept that this was the way it was in Japan, — as I had read before I arrived?
Nope. Every chance I got, I cranked that thermostat down. No Japanese person would change the office temperature without permission from the manager. No one would possibly be that arrogant — except me. I was convinced my crime would be hidden by the fact that it was hot and everyone else would do the same when they were alone. Nothing could be further from the truth in a country like Japan, which focuses on the good of the group, and where it’s practically a government mandate to allow office temperatures to be high during the summer to save on power.
When many Americans travel abroad, some of them take their country with them. Doing this as an international traveler makes one fall into dangerous habits. Rather than keeping their American mannerisms and standards to themselves, and simply noting and honoring differences, some travelers feel compelled to reshape the world in their American image.
I was a bad American traveler. I still am sometimes — when I blow my nose in public in Japan, when I talk loudly on the bus in Korea, and when I seek other Americans for solace when something inevitably goes wrong with my little cultural “adjustments.”
No one has the power to stop all bad travelers from the United States from going abroad. A narcissist can get on a one-way flight and push his way to the front of lines, believing that he’s the most important one in the room. People who like eating as they walk might do so in defiance of Ramadan. Self-awareness of how we, as American travelers, find our place in the world grows slowly, and often by trial and error. However, trying to remember there’s usually a reason for the way we behave as Americans, and why that may not necessarily be applied or even appreciated abroad, is the first step to growing as a respectful traveler.