When my grandfather went to China for the first time in my memory, he brought back a porcelain doll and a Blues Clues coloring book. Naturally, I assumed that China and Blues Clues had something in common, and I kind of forgot about the porcelain doll (it was for looking, not playing, and I was unimpressed as a five year old).
My dad went to Mexico when I was in second grade and brought back peso candy. It was chewy and sweet and stuck to my teeth, and my brother and I were amazed that not everyone's currency candy came in the form of chocolate.
The first time my parents visited Switzerland is a vivid memory for me. I was in third grade, my brother was in kindergarten. My grandmother and great aunt came to stay with us, and I proudly puffed out my chest and grinned whenever anybody asked why my parents weren't home, "They're in Switzerland." It seemed exotic, and I knew it was far away. My mom talked about the evergreens downtown, decorated with real ornaments even though they were outside.
My dad talked about the snow and a mysterious foreign dish that he'd been too concerned to ask the contents of, but ate anyway and said that it tasted okay. They talked about public transportation, which I had always assumed meant school buses and maybe the SkyRail at Disney. They brought back chocolate so dark that my brother and I, wanting to prove our maturity and ability to eat dark chocolate, ended up taking it with us on a "picnic" under the deck and managing only to eat the smallest bites imaginable at a time to avoid the bitter taste.
In fifth grade, my parents sat us down and said we were going to this country that had seemed like a fairytale. My brother and I proudly told anyone who would listen about our culture training and the differences in language and that our house had seven stories and that our school had scuba diving as an extracurricular and that we were going to ski over Christmas and oh, by the way, did you know we're walking to school?
We flew in on August 10, 2009. It was a different time in a lot of ways, but an 11 and 8-year-old didn't have any way of knowing that. We spent the two weeks before school started "exploring" our neighborhood and enjoying some newfound freedom. Much to my brother's embarrassment, I greeted everyone we met with a "Guten Tag" - I wanted to practice.
We went to the park by what would soon be my school and tried to make friends with the local kids. I cried when they laughed at me, but I assumed it was my fault - not theirs. After all, what would I have said if a random girl came up to my friends and I back in Lennox Woods and spoke German? I would have laughed, too.
That's my point.
In 2018, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. As Americans, all too often we go into other countries expecting them to acclimate to our norms. This is by no means a uniquely American problem, but it is one exacerbated in the United States by a general ignorance and a dislike for learning about other cultures.
From a very young age, my parents made sure that I knew there was a world beyond my backyard, beyond the playground at school, beyond the state lines, and beyond the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They made sure I knew that North America does not begin and end with the United States, that Africa is a continent, not a country, and that the 50 states, while amazing, would not exist without the other 194 countries of the world - even the ones that the current government, my teacher, or even my history book might not like. Perhaps not everyone has this experience, but I'm here to say that that needs to change.
All too often, Americans abroad take the opportunity to find all the ways the United States is purportedly better. I can't even count the number of times I've heard people complain about the lack of American amenities in other countries, and if I hear one more time, "Wow you're so lucky you got to move back home to the US" from someone who thinks they're being sincere, I am liable to riot. I am lucky, and this is a great place to live. It is not, however, the only place to live or the best place to live. Every place is different and must be respected and appreciated for different reasons.
My challenge to you is to find all the ways the country you're in is better - and then take some of that culture back and adopt it for yourself. That's what this country was built on. I can bet money that most places you visit have a healthier diet and exercise habit as a nation - take that, make it yours.
It is not another culture or country's fault that they understand things differently than you do. Please, please, please never go into another country complaining that they "don't even speak English", that they "can't make a good burger", or (perhaps most of all) "don't have any good coffee other than Starbucks". Don't go to chains. Try to enjoy the culture. Appreciate it.
By trying to enjoy other cultures with the childlike wonder of a kid proving an ability and affinity for ultra dark chocolate, you're changing not only the way you are perceived and accepted in your host country (and trust me, you will be much better accepted and enjoy your trip much more), you are also changing the perception little by little for the United States as a whole. It starts with you.
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