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Being an American abroad

As I have lived in a number of different countries, I have a lot I can share on the subject of preconceptions about Americans. I studied at the University of Freiburg in Germany. You should know that most Germans read at least two major daily newspapers and are absolute news junkies, and they are appalled at the fact that Americans know next to nothing about geography (what’s the capital of Estonia again? Where would I begin to look for Togo on a map?) or even their own history (you mean Americans of Japanese descent were really rounded up during World War II and placed in detention camps? No way!).

Planning your own excursion abroad? Stay in timeshare rentals instead of hotels – walk to area attractions, shop locally and prepare meals in your own kitchen – get a true feel for the culture of the country you are visiting.

I lived in France for two months and had to defend myself and my countrymen against accusations of slathering everything in ketchup (I will let this abbreviated version stand in for various French rants about American cuisine in general). Moreover, we are collectively unable to sit properly in a chair (that is to say, without propping our feet up on a table or another chair, something which is apparently viewed as a Neanderthal habit we have not yet managed to break).

For the Brits, we are just far too enthusiastic about everything – the simile once used involved a slobbering retriever – and LOUD. We are loud in our dress (you know that quiet tweeds in oatmeal and navy tend to be de rigueur for the Brits rather than fuchsia and orange) as well as in terms of decibel levels. In public transport you can hear the Americans a mile away. (Perhaps this has something to do with geography, the wide open spaces in America versus the small island that is Gray Britain?). Furthermore, we have a tendency to reveal far too much information about ourselves: they don’t really want to hear about the last session with the psychoanalyst. Take it from me, this will only make your reserved British friend feel extremely awkward and uncomfortable and force him to order yet another pint of Guinness to drown his sorrows.

But the most interesting experience has been coming to Senegal, where I currently teach school. It is here that I found out just how gluttonous and selfish we really are, and of course it is true that the single expats working for NGOs live in five-bedroom penthouses with marble floors while twelve Senegalese are crowded together in the same amount of space, sans air conditioning and hot water.

For West Africans, people from Europe or America tend to live in a strangely isolated fashion, valuing their ‘space’ and their ‘privacy,’ often to the extent that they will prefer to live apart from their families, putting aging parents in homes or dying relatives in hospice care. Our attitudes towards money and saving for the future are also highly unusual, almost equivalent to hoarding things for ourselves rather than helping others in need. Here, there may be one working relative who supports his entire extended family – the ethical obligation is to share with those who have less rather than suggest that it might behoove those with no source of income to look for paid work.

On a lighter note, I haven’t yet even mentioned my atrocious table manners – not only have I not got the hang of forming balls of rice in my right hand and guiding them to my mouth without making a mess of it, but I also eat everything on my plate, because I was raised with the knowledge that children in Africa were starving. Newsflash: here in Senegal, you are expected to leave a little something on your plate, otherwise your host may think you have not been served enough!

But one of the funniest things to my mind is that I never questioned my own hygiene before, yet here I discovered that not everyone in the world uses toilet paper. Not only do many Africans not miss it, but they actually find it cleaner to use water and their left hand. Let me not mince words: their way, to their mind, is superior. This, I suppose, is what feeds my addiction to traveling; it is only through this sometimes brutally difficult interaction with other world views that we can begin to discover who and what we are.

In a nutshell, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Know that there are a lot of stereotypes about Americans anywhere you go. The key, I think, is to try hard to observe local customs first. Make an effort to learn first and judge later, if at all, keeping in mind that what is moldy cheese and fermented grape juice for some remain costly delicacies for others somewhere else on the globe.

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