So you’re American and you want to travel abroad but are a little worried. Have no fear, the world is nowhere near as dangerous as the American media portrays it. However it is also worth noting that the United States hasn’t had the best global image recently. As such it is all the more important to not offend the foreigners you encounter while traveling. My purpose today is instead teaching you how to not act like an “American idiot” while on foreign soil. (There are already enough politicians doing the exact opposite, no need to hop on the bandwagon.)
After five years of no work all travel I’ve witnessed enough people making fools of themselves while abroad to last me a lifetime. While I don’t expect this trend to stop this anytime soon, I at least feel the need to try and do my part to help reduce their prevalence.
Additionally, there are also times and places when you might not want to stick out like an American thumb. For example, I have long grown tired of the “why is your military here?” and “what is Obama doing over there?” I’ve been getting that latter question since the Bush days and I still don’t have an answer for it.
It should also be noted that this post, like so many of my others, is merely the continuation of a topic that I was ranting about on Twitter just a few hours ago. So if you don’t follow @the_HoliDaze, well maybe you should… 😉
Get used to no ice in your drinks — unless it’s beer.
No other country overloads on ice the way people from America do. Whether this is a result of growing up with fast food and 64oz Super Big Gulps is anybody’s guess, however regardless the trend remains. In some parts of the world like Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia the lack of ice has as much to do with the availability and cost of refrigeration as the quality of the water. Many if not most countries outside of the western world do no have the infrastructure to support every household having a freezer…or even a fridge for that matter. Drinking room temperature water and soda is commonplace. Do not ask for ice unless you would walk around with “American” tattooed on your forehead because that is essentially what you are doing.
The sole exception is with beer. Even in tropical countries when the beer is served cold, often a small bowl of ice cubes will accompany it. When I first saw this in 2008 in the Philippines my reaction was one of disgust — “this beer already tastes like water, why would I want to add ice to it?” — however five minutes later when that 35°C heat (sorry, 95°F) had warmed my beer to the same lukewarm temperature as urine, well you can bet I quickly adopted the ice method.
Do NOT eat at McDonald’s. In fact do not eat ANY American food while traveling abroad.
I cannot stress this enough. I don’t care if McDonald’s is America’s #1 comfort food, you have no place eating it on foreign soil. (Technically I’m one of those who believes there is never a right time to eat McDonald’s, but to each their own.)/p>
Just look at how much money you spent on airplane tickets, lodging, and all the other expenses associated with international travel to get where you are. Are you really go to spend all that money and time to visit somewhere new and NOT try some new foods? Shame on you.
And this leads me to my next point…
The food may be better at home, but NEVER say that until you are back home.
This mystery dish was served to me in Minh Binh, Vietnam and has the dubious honor of being the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten — far worse than dog, horse, insects, raw King Cobra organs and even blood, both liquid and congealed. As far as I can tell it was diced seafood of an assorted variety served in a cold, congealed red pudding-like substance that resembled blood and tasted exactly like how I’ve always imagined E.T. the extraterrestrial would taste. Needless to say I was a bad guest here and unable to finish this fetid food, which I’m sure offended my hosts even if they did not express it.
Americans are often perceived as uncultured, entitled and/or ignorant. Blatantly criticizing the local food in the public will only perpetuate this stereotype. As a long-term traveler originally from the USA, I have grown very tired of people believing all Americans are rich idiots. Many of us are neither.
Keep an open mind and always think about the image you present. As a guest in a foreign country you represent all Americans so please do it well.
Scared to eat with your hands? Don’t be.
Eating with your hands in commonplace in many countries around the world but it’s not quite as simple as one might initially expect. In fact it really is more of an art form.
For starters only use your right hand, NEVER the left as this is disrespectful, improper, and above all unsanitary, as in many of these countries the left hand is used to wipe.
Bring together a small ball on your plate using all five fingers, just as you would swipe an iPad to bring it back to the home screen.
Scoop it up just like that annoying old claw machine that always drops your prize (although obviously don’t mimic the machine too much by dropping your food) and bring it toward your mouth, remembering to keep your head perfectly horizontal and not tilted back like a baby bird eager for a regurgitated meal from mommy.
Now using your thumb flick this makeshift food ball ever so slightly into your mouth using one smooth, quick and hopefully graceful gesture, rather than sticking all your fingers in and slobbering all over the tips of each.
Like I said, it’s an art form and could take a few days to grow accustomed to.
Learn a few phrases of the local language.
Refusing to learn at least a couple basic words in the local language is a foreign faux pas many tourists have, not just Americans. Sure, English may be the current international language but when deep inside a foreign country do not expect locals to know English and certainly do not get upset or mad at them when they do not. Over the years I’ve seen more tourists guilty of this than anything else. There is no easier way to come off like an asshole.
What words and phrases should you learn? Start with “hello” and “thank you” then think of what other phrases you might need on a daily basis. “Cheers!” “Where is the bathroom?” and “yes/no” are all good ones. However my personal favorite is learning how to say something like “thank you so much, you are a f’n badass!” — although preferably without any swear words as these are not always acceptable depending on the country. (Trust me here, I speak from experience. I was recently locked up abroad for 16 days and then deported and banned from Indonesia for dropping the f-bomb on Twitter. Yes, seriously.)
Learning how to say a phrase such as “you are awesome” will become immensely valuable when showing your gratitude. For example, most people who visit Indonesia know that terima kasih means thank you. However when someone does something really awesome, I prefer to say makasih banyak, kamu gokil! That translates as “thanks so much, you are really awesome (in a cool kind of way).” Knowing how to say useful and/or funny phrases such as this that no other foreigner EVER says will win over locals left and right, and that will make your travel experiences exponentially more exciting and enjoyable.
Do not be shocked by eggs that are being sold and stored at room temperature.
This is how the entire rest of the world does it except for the United States. Why? Because eggs in the US are cleaned before packaging. Cleaning, that sounds like a good thing, right? Debatable. The cleaning process washes off the protective coating on the outside of the shell that safeguards the egg within, which then requires that the eggs be immediately refrigerated.
Do NOt expect everywhere to accept credit cards.
In fact just to be safe — especially when traveling tropical or developing countries — don’t expect anywhere to accept credit cards. Sure, anything and everything can be purchased with plastic in America, however not every country is like this. In many places cash is king. Especially developing nations. Think ahead and when you see an ATM make sure to withdraw more than enough money to cover you until you encounter another. Besides, given the foreign ATM withdrawal fees that most banks have it’s actually smarter and less expensive to take out more than you normally would. I’ve been stuck on the top of a mountain in a little village hours away from the nearest ATM and with no cash to pay for my homestay or do the little things in life, like food. Or even to purchase enough gasoline to make it all the way back to that bump in the road four hours back laughably referred to as a town. Talk about an embarrassing experience.
It is also worth mentioning that ATMs in remote areas ― especially islands where there is only one or two ― have been known to run out of cash on a somewhat regular basis.
Never flash your cash.
Building off my last point, this one really should be obvious but apparently it isn’t. Now that you’ve just left an ATM with a wallet full of cash DO NOT flash it around. If the bill is ₱90 do not open your wallet and flip through dozens of ₱1000 bills just to pull out a ₱100 note. Keep the small notes loose in your pocket, a few big notes in your wallet just in case, and the bulk of your cash hidden somewhere safe — like a money belt.
Act like a Canadian.
If all else fails just resort to the age-old tactic of slapping a maple leaf or Canadian flag on your backpack and dropping a few ‘eh’s. After all…
I did this in one country not to make Canada look bad for my actions but not to make me look bad because of America’s actions. And it worked. As soon I I switched to telling people I was from Canada all of the negative encounters ceased. Problem solved.