Adventures of an American Fly on the Wall

I’ve come to the realization that Americans get a bad rep abroad.

Something that I have noticed, especially here in Florence, is the massive ‘tourist culture’. Most people have a ‘vacation mentality’ when traveling, often because they are on exactly that – a vacation. Yet, something that seems to fly over the heads those who turn off the processing of reactions don’t realize that behavior that fits in one location, doesn’t ‘fit in’ in all locations. 

There is a thin line between meager cultural differences and more obnoxious and offensive behavior. 

Not going to lie, I feel an irritation towards people who have a similar accent to myself. Haven even muttered the word “Americans” under my breath, tasting the sourness in my exhale as if I was personally offended by their loud laughs, casual conversation, and basketball shorts. Sometimes I seem to forget my own distinctive ‘American’ laugh, constant asking for directions, and – nope, I don’t own basketball shorts so you don’t have me there. 

Are we offended by these different cultures when abroad because we don’t like the uniqueness that is associated with being different? Is there a push towards mono-culture because then everyone is the same, has the same interests, thus there is less friction and conflict between people? 

Why then, however, are humans across cultures desperate to ‘fit in’ yet want to be considered unique at the same time? Accepted but also held in higher regard? Maybe part of human nature, we are desperate to be included in the community by see the ones that are slightly different more powerful. 

I must admit, I have the tendency to want to blend into the locations and places that I visit. Politeness, respectability, and observant eyes were the tools I used in this process of learning or trying to learn how to blend into different environments with ease. To be a sore thumb in a cultural location is perceived as irritating to locals and other travelers alike. I’ve become extremely aware of the hypersensitivity associated with calling attention to oneself, almost especially when abroad. Back in the States, I’ve come to realize that we don’t mind loudness, in fact, we often relish in it. However, it is considered obnoxious in many cultures to call attention to oneself and make a scene. 

Since being here in Florence, I realized the arrogance of my judgements of other travelers. I am hypocritical by offering my judgement of tourists whom are unable to blend in. Have I forgotten my roots? In the education of my school, I’ve become ‘internationally-cultured’ through the diversity of places I have lived in and the nationalities and cultures of my friends. Even my accent becoming tinged with the intonations of my Bhutanese peers, my vocabulary not distinctive of a particular region and my inner ‘valley girl’ (I am from Silicon Valley) has calmed down with the constant “likes” and the “sentences that end as a question?”. 

The ‘global issue’, in a way, of tourist culture is the lack of awareness that some people exude when abroad. It seems that there is an absence of understanding that not everyone in a location isn’t also on vacation  Cultural offensiveness is something that I experienced in all countries that I’ve traveled to, whether it be my own ignorance, the disconnect with the culture of the people there, or observing interactions with foreigners and locals. For instance, I was totally naive in Argentina about dress – still wearing the hoodies, short shorts, and vans that clothed my existence back in California. In India, I was so shocked to be so out of my comfort zone with the chaos and crowds that I eventually became hyper aware of how others were perceived. It was here I realized how culturally offensive I can be as I spoke rudely to a tuktuk driver. Realization dawned on me as I became embarrassed of how I acted and spoke. The past two years of TGS, I’ve been in mostly western-influenced countries and was surprised by how different cultures can be within the western sphere of influence. The conservatism of the Swedes totally juxtaposes the outgoing nature of the Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks or the Italians. Nevertheless, I’ve found that the American culture is the most casual of them all, having a sort of ‘anything goes’ kind of attitude to decorum, a loud politeness that appears rude to the more formal politeness of Europe. Then again, this is all just my perception of the situation 

In all honesty, my conclusion is that the best thing someone can do to avoid the ‘global issue’ of cultural insensitivity is to observe and be patient. Understanding ones place by acting as a third-party on interactions with people similar to you makes you want to adjust your actions. Trying to be a fly on the wall and viewing the situation differently changes the opinion you have of your behavior. 

The Things We Carry

We carry too many things to travel light.

Our fifty pound pounds bag are full of toothpaste, shampoo, medication, books, binders, paper, pens, moleskines, cameras, photographs, underwear, jackets, spotify playlists, kindles, books, library cards, water bottles, evil eyes, duct tape, art projects, biology notes, and BS. We don’t need half the things that we carry, but we cling to the familiarity of ‘home’ in the hotel rooms, dorm rooms, and halloween costumes as we set up camp for the umpteeth time in the past four years of our lives.

We carry youth, teenage angst, anger and love.

We carry more identities than nationalities. We carry more technology than socks. We carry more hope than Hans Rosling’s statistics do. We carry more hugs than tears. We carry the burdens and blessings of memories, lessons, and too many alfajores.

We carry too many things to travel heavy.

We carry stories. Happy stories like when we ran through the streets of Nacka with spoons as our swords and ‘The System’ as our opponent. We floated through the streets like a Jake jumps over a hopscotch – with a little too much forward momentum and the fearlessness to jump again (and again). Hard stories like when we trudged through the mountains of Monteverde screaming out against the confinement, the lack of control, and the constipation. Hilarious stories like when a Yodsel flew through the air like the bat in our bathroom at Indus, to take out a Fatima on a raft in Costa Rican whitewater.

We carry so much responsibility, our heads and hands are strong from holding ourselves together.

Our endurance to carry all of these things is so tested that our lungs feels as if they are collapsing simply from an email notification about our ToDos on spot; however, we know that our lungs are not collapsing. The only thing collapsing is our bodies as we fall onto cool, foreign, overwashed, almost-white sheets. As we breathe in the cheap detergent, we let our ugly-as hiking bags sink deep into our backs. We carry hiking boots that we never use, a flashlight that looks like a baton, and too many bug bites for the amount of bug sprays we brought.

We carry the ability to handle what is handed to us.

We carry things for the rough roads and smooth sailings. We carry snacks for when our tummies ache for its love (food), advil for (really) all the time, and floss for cleaning our mouth of the crap that comes out and into it. We carry so much love it is unknown just how much we carry – the only answerable question is what form it takes: passion, punches, lunches, laughs, photographs, pancakes, headaches, hugs, pugs, prancing, dancing.

We carry our lives traveling: through people, places, and purposes.