How Travel Has Made Me a Better American

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.


Boarded Up US Embassy in Belgrade

Comparison Studies

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.

Public Defender

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.

Do you think travel has made you a better citizen?

39 thoughts on “How Travel Has Made Me a Better American”

  1. Interesting that folks say to you to travel the US vs abroad. I get just the opposite! I’ve been lucky to do some travel abroad but have been focusing the last several years on the US. Personal choice. Once I visit all 50 states I’ll start working on the continents! But the point is, some people don’t understand why I would rather go to Wyoming than Paris. And to me, that’s the beauty of life – choice. I, too am a better American for my travels – understanding life beyond my city; industry, farming, and natural wonders.

  2. Interesting post. I agree traveling is mind opening. It has made me grown as a person and as a professional. I know more because of my traveling, but I am also able to recognize there is much more to learn.
    I identify with the section that says “I never thought so much about my country and what it means to me until I left its borders.” I believe this is true for any traveler. Being out of what you know, what is safe, makes you think. It is one of the great things about traveling.

  3. Excellent post! I feel so many of the same things that you discuss here. I don’t agree with every action taken by our country’s government but I still feel angry when people — ESPECIALLY other Americans — put down the U.S.

  4. Love your thoughts Steph! I was thinking much about things like this over the weekend, and actually have a post planned about traveling as a kind-of patriotic act as it truly lets us exercise our freedoms. I absolutely love backpackers and world travelers’ role as ambassador, and I take pride in trying to give others the best impression of the USA I can give. As I do with my home town, St. Louis, I always try to educate people i meet abroad about my country, it’s quirks, traditions, among others. The more people get to know something, the more the stereotypes break down. Also, great idea about sending the Tea Party abroad, how about 2012, preferably November?

    1. Very well said- particularly after visiting China (Where many people are not allowed to travel abroad) I can really see being able to travel as a great expression of freedom.

  5. “Nutty tea partiers with ignorant and insular ideas”

    That statement alone shows great ignorance on your behalf. I’m not a tea party member, but I disagree with your description of them. They represent a rather large segment of the U.S. population and I wouldn’t say their beliefs are characterized by ignorance. Unless, of course, you, as a twenty-something traveler, are far more enlightened than any of those millions of ignorant tea party members.

    Just because you disagree with their views does not mean they are ignorant and unexposed to the rest of the world.

    1. Traveler, while it is certainly your choice to agree or disagree with anyone’s opinion, from your comment, it appears your disagreement with Steph is based almost solely on a numerical superiority. Additionally, you made what seems to be a negative age-related comment against Steph.

      We must all understand that “strength in numbers” does not always equate to correctness nor logic. As a matter of fact, it’s more likely to mirror a “mob rules” mentality rather than what is correct or reasonable.

      1. Not much to add here. “Large segment of the population” does not mean they aren’t ignorant and kinda scary.

  6. Totally agree with your sentiments here mate. In my circles of friends back home in Australia, there’s not a huge feeling of patriotism. But since I left Oz, I’ve begun to understand what it means to actually be Australian and how we are perceived by the rest of the world. I now own an Australian flag and an Australian soccer jersey, ready to rep my country whenever I can.

  7. No country is immune from questionable policies or politics, I think the media of America has done a spot-on job of creating a mythology of the US of A that has crossed borders. Sometimes good; sometimes negative.

    So as travelers, Americans face scrutiny. My motto has always been – find out for yourself!

    I’ve met Americans who displayed an openness and maturity the stereotypes would say otherwise.

    And other encounters were the opposite.

    I totally agree that part of being a useful citizen is highlighting the positive or negative impact of our respective countries.

    What a better way to do that than with this platform. You gooo girl!

    1. Thanks! I think it can be equally applied to all countries really: You have to check things out for yourself to really separate media hype from reality.

  8. I completely agree. When abroad, I feel a responsibility and pride in being American. I definitely feel more so when I am away then when I’m here- for whatever reason. Great post!

  9. Very fascinating. I am inspired by what you set out to follow your dreams and you dare to get out of the box. I am not a twenty something. I am a mother of teens who strongly believes… travels enrich lives.

    Take care and safe travels.

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