The Cultural Resonance of Food
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When preparing for a vacation abroad, travelers will hear all kinds of contrasting advice about how to carry themselves in a foreign country.
On the one hand: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. On the other hand: Don't forget where you came from.
On the one hand: Be yourself. On the other hand: Blend in with the locals.
It's all pretty confusing; add to that the stigma of being the "typical tourist," and it only gets worse.
Some of the tourist stereotypes border on offensive. This type of tourist travels in large groups and takes lots of pictures and video. That type of tourist sits on buses and peers out the window waiting for the next buffet. This other type of tourist puts peanut butter on the scones. Another can't pronounce anything they see written down except brand names.
Americans traveling abroad have a particularly bad rap. They're loud, poorly dressed and -- worst of all -- obvious. The Ugly American.
There are reasons for the ubiquity of this stereotype. First off, there are a lot of us. And our extreme affluence relative to the bulk of the world's population means there are a lot of us traveling, a very expensive hobby without question.
And our Gap/Old Navy/catalogue clothing culture tends to dictate that we dress alike, and sometimes colorfully; you don't find too much basic black at Old Navy.
So the French and the rest would rather we downplay our American-ness. But can anyone tell me why Mickey Mouse, Jerry Lewis and Cher have done so well as exports? Certainly it's not their cross-cultural sensitivity or their understated taste. It's their American-ness.
The Archetypal Ugly American
I'm no fan of the archetypal Ugly American. Heck, forget Americans abroad -- I couldn't even stand the "shoobies" (named for the shoeboxes shore-bound Philadelphians used to pack lunches in decades ago) who invaded my old home town near Atlantic City every summer with their accents, gruff manner and terrible driving habits.
It's undeniable that some folks simply don't have a feel for their surroundings, for shifting their rhythms to match the rhythms of place, for shifting their personal style to jive with the style of the country they're in, for leaving the worst of their home style at home.
So if you're planning to pour out of your hotel room in some khaki shorts with a money belt, a Jacksonville Dolphins baseball cap, an "I'm With Stupid" shirt, some plastic sunglasses and enough sunscreen to block out a supernova, you deserve whatever comes to you.
And if you start wailing about how you can't find any bagels, or send back a pint of bitter because it's warm, or whine and cry about how you can't find the McDonald's, and once you find it complain that the Big Macs are different -- well, a pox on you and yours. (In these situations, why travel?!?)
Vive la Difference
There's something in all of us that both fears and embraces the differences between us. The kid who moved to an American town from Europe got into fights, but also often got the girl (can I still say that these days?) because he was just different enough to be interesting.
And there's the key -- don't bore the citizens of the world with your American-ness; try to interest them.
For example, when people ask, I tell them I'm from New Jersey. It often gets a laugh; then I tell them I live behind a mall, and that I have to drive through the parking lot to get to my house (in fact, I have a friend who does just that), and that I eat three times a day at Chuck E. Cheese.
Then I tell them I grew up in Atlantic City, actually Ventnor -- "yellow on the Monopoly board." Older folks get it; younger folks usually say "Monopoly is all the streets of London," a reference to the licensing and bastardizing of the Monopoly board to suit local tastes. (And they say Americans have poor taste?)
If they press for more, I tell them I lived in Manhattan for a decade, spent a couple of years in Philadelphia and have family in California.
This simple information provides an opening for all kinds of discussion. Had I played it cool and deadpanned that I lived "in the United States," it would have been game over.
Even when people get in your face, staying grounded in who you are and where you're from won't hurt. For example, a few weeks ago I told the story of being called "gringo" on a trip to Venezuela. I asked the folks if gringo was a bad thing to be called, and if so why they would say that to someone they don't know. It takes a mix of pluck, daring and innocence to pull this kind of thing off, but it sure provided a conversation opener.
And hey, if I had stayed a while and they had given me the nickname gringo, I'd have lived by it.