Here in the United States we have some weird attitudes towards travel. Along with our crazy work priorities, there seems to be this odd yet persistent notion that there’s something unpatriotic about traveling abroad. Not everyone believes this of course, but more than once I’ve run up against this idea of “if you love your country, why would you need to go anywhere else?”
This isn’t a very well thought out argument, and debating with these people is both perplexing and frustrating. I don’t hate America, it’s my birthplace, my home, and, although I’m not always proud of its actions, I love my country. Traveling abroad has only made this more clear to me: the truth is, I never thought so much about my country and what it means to me until I left it’s borders.
I honestly believe that if more Americans traveled abroad, our country would be in much better shape. Here are just some of the ways that travel has made me a better citizen:
Distance Brings Perspective
I grew up in the DC area, where politics aren’t just a cocktail party topic, they are a way of life. Still, I never thought so much about the United States and it’s place in the world as I have since I left the country. Just like time gives you perspective on your personal problems, being outside the thick of the 24 hour media cycle has allowed me to think more critically about the USA. It’s strengthened my opinions on foreign affairs issues, and even domestic ones. I honestly think that if we sent some of those nutty tea partiers out into the world for 6 months to a year, their ignorant and insular ideas would evaporate.
Unless you’re living in 1984, a good citizen is a critically thinking citizen. Traveling abroad has given me a chance to see how other countries do things and to make comparisons. For example, in England I became intimiatly acquainted with socialized medicine (by umm, having an emergency operation) and I can definitively say it is not so scary. In other countries I’ve witnessed the effects of war, extreme corruption and poverty and I can definitively say they ARE pretty scary.
Maybe the most influential experience though was living in China this Spring, a country with a government far far different from my own. It’s a place where corruption runs rampant, there are virtually no safety standards and anyone who objects to the government is thrown in jail or worse. The good of the state is put far above the needs of the people. Never have I been so grateful to live in a country where individualism, freedom and free speech are valued and protected.
Nothing gets me riled up faster than running into travelers who dismiss all Americans as brash, rude, imperialists. The irony of dismissing everyone in an entire country for being ignorant is just mind-boggling to me. This used to be a bigger problem when George Bush was president, but occasionally I’ll still run up against anti-americanism. It’s a huge pet peeve, and I am always quick to defend my country and it’s people, and to point out that you probably don’t have complete control over everything your country does either.
I’m an Ambassador
On the flip side of that, one of the most important things Americans can do abroad is be a good representative of our country: to show the world that real Americans don’t fit into the ugly american stereotype that’s so popular. This is why people who hide their nationality make me angry, it’s your patriotic duty to represent your country well, and it’s the only way to change people’s attitudes.
It’s true that Americans don’t travel abroad as much as Australians, Canadians and Europeans, so our presence can attract extra curiosity. In Asia I would often find myself struggling to answer questions like: Do we all carry guns? Why don’t we travel more? Is Sarah Palin for real? I don’t always have the best answers but I do my best.
The more Americans that travel abroad, the more things will change: both in terms of people’s attitudes towards Americans, and in having more informed, worldly citizens. What America needs now is more critical thinkers, more citizens of the world.
I am a proud American but I can not stand blind patriotism, the idea that you should support your country no matter what it does. There are a lot of things that upset me about the United States and it’s politics, I get frustrated sometimes and I rant and rave in front of my laptop until Mike tells me to calm down and go outside. At the same time, there are a lot of things I really love about my country: Americans are friendly- some of the most outgoing people on earth. We are a country based on innovation and initiative, a place of revolutionaries and self-starters. I’m proud to travel the world as a US citizen, and no matter how many places I go, I’ll never forget where I came from.