Travel Well (Newsweek submission: 3/18/07)

By Christopher Wink | Mar 18, 2007 | Newsweek submission

I have an excessive devotion to my nationality. I like to think there is something distinctly American in that pride of being American. I have saved money and made friends all to answer my desperation to travel, desperate to learn and explore and represent this nation.

I carry a four foot by six foot American flag that was once my grandfather’s whenever I’m abroad, whenever I’m representing this nation. So, that faded flag has gone from his attic, to the wall of my row home in Philadelphia, to a migrant workers’ station in Mexico, to a slave castle in Ghana, to a great wall in China.

I take very seriously my representing the United States. I speak with the polite “vous” in southern Quebec and drink slowly my wine in central Tuscany. Yes, I have an excessive devotion to my nationality. But, sadly, perhaps it is my expressiveness that is distinctly American. I have seen hundreds of Italian club-goers glaring at a group of American girls who were having too much fun–pocketbooks over their shoulders, shoes in one hand, drinks in the other–as they tripped through a break-dancing competition.

Months earlier I watched horrified as a group of college-aged American boys, drunk and screaming, marched up a Tokyo escalator the wrong way, one with his pants around his ankles. This appears to be the new image of Americans, one that is creeping across the globe.

Of course, there has always been a well-mannered, well-to-do segment of our population who has taken international flights, in addition to the particularly adventurous and those in uniform. Moreover, maybe six million Americans live abroad today, according to the American Political Science Association. Still, travel is changing. Foreign jaunts are becoming increasingly accessible to a generation of middle-class kids who are growing up during an age of study abroad and cultural immersion.

Since 2000, the population of American students studying abroad for credit has increased by nearly 20 percent, to numbers exceeding 190,000 through 2005, more than doubling since 1991, according to statistics collected by the Institute of International Education. The trouble is that while those numbers mushroom, foreign countries, particularly our industrialized neighbors, are meeting a generation of Americans who are apparently unprepared to appropriately represent the United States maturely. Increasingly, we aren’t cowboys or Yankees anymore, we are ignorant, drunk, loud and hedonistic.

This is an image that comes from a younger, yet independent group of Americans who, in rapidly rising numbers, are going abroad. Like the group of clearly privileged, overtly vulgar Americans with whom I, and at least one sneering French woman, shared a Eurostar train a few months ago. I sat red-faced and apparently helpless as one Abercrombie sweatshirt-clad blonde-haired girl shouted excessively about her earlier excitement regarding Spanish men, “who are like the hottest guys ever.” A minority or not, it is the loud ones that are remembered and by whom our country is often judged.

This can’t be what all of our nation’s prosperity is for, can it? Foreign travel, spring break style? For the sake of all the positive I know this nation embodies, I think as more Americans get their passports stamped–which needs to happen a lot more often if we are to remain a superpower–we all need to remember that, invariably, we are being watched. In many corners of the world, Americans are celebrities, and, like celebrities, those who know our name don’t always respect us, just because something they read or have come to expect.

I am not asserting that we should avoid being sociable; our openness and friendliness are some of the great qualities associated with our nationality, but there is a level of tact that some, especially in my younger generation, seem to forget when they leave home. This is a crucial time in history, I believe that. We need patriotic Americans to take cultural diplomacy on their backs and travel conscientiously, eager to learn and quick to smile.

In West Africa, I played basketball with teenagers who, despite their hip-hop references, defined themselves as non-Western–as not me–while I was more than happy to play the role of the American. Being an American shouldn’t be embarrassing, it should be a source of pride, something to be fiercely defended and openly promoted.

Before the great wars of the early twentieth century, this country was agrarian and isolated, largely by choice and certainly with pride. Since then we have matured and industrialized. Save for our corporate omnipresence and ubiquitous military, I know there is an awful sentiment abroad that Americans are isolated still, culturally, perhaps even intellectually. This is especially troubling because how, then, could real patriotism still exist? You cannot love something until you know why you shouldn’t.

Too many of our fellow countrymen will never have the opportunity to get abroad, and, even more troublingly, there are too many Americans who are using their travel experiences to unknowingly skewer our image globally. If you can, if you want to open the door, if only to better appreciate your home, then do it. Please. You or your children or your friends. Under your best behavior and with humility and pride, graciousness and openness, with your nationality and an American flag always close to your heart, explore this world.

As submitted to Newsweek magazine’s ‘My Turn’ column in March 2007.