“The wise man belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul is the whole world.” Democritus
Have you ever wondered how people from other countries view America and the American people? Do people come to our country with preconceived ideas of our government and our citizens? When we travel outside of the United States do we have presumptive ideas of what to expect from the people and the culture we are visiting? How do we learn about today’s world cultures? Can we trust what the media reports about the peoples of another country?
Years ago when I traveled to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, England, Scotland, and Wales, I was looking forward to experiencing different cultures. I worried that since I don’t speak another language that I would have difficulty understanding the people. But I did learn that my years of Latin helped me translate menus and signs. I looked forward to experiencing plays, the symphony, the theatre, beer gardens, intriguing history, and whatever I could learn about the people. What surprised me most was that people there remarked that they did not perceive me as an American. I heard, “You don’t act like an American!” Was it because I was not wearing red, white, and blue? Or what characteristics about me make me different from other Americans who travel abroad? Is it because I am not loud and obnoxious? Is it because various cultures fascinate me and I’m open to learning from others? Or is it simply that I am curious about other people and how they live their everyday lives?
One particular trip, my husband and I traveled to attend a business conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. People from countries all around the globe came to attend this meeting. There the conference leaders arranged a variety of games so that we would become better acquainted with one another, and to learn to better communicate with this group of people. In one particular game, the leaders teamed the women against the men. They put us in groups of four. The women had to thread a rope up inside our sleeve, run it up our arm, across our chest, and out the other sleeve into the sleeve of the woman next to us.
The men, on the other hand, were to run the rope up their pant leg, across their crotch, and down the other pant leg to the man next to them. Most of the men struggled with pushing the rope up their pant legs and on to the next person. However, one group of men were quite ingenious as they all simply dropped their drawers, whisked the rope through their pants, and out in the snap of their fingers. Now, here in the states I doubt the men would have come up with such a creative and ingenious solution to their problem. In Europe these men evidently thought nothing of standing there in their underwear in front of unfamiliar women.
Since I was the only American woman there, I had to make a decision… stand there blushing, shrieking, and closing my eyes or realize that I had at least seen my husband in his underwear and these men were no different. None of the other women made a disturbance, so why should I? That evening after we completed the games, and while sampling a delightful Swedish smorgasbord with unique beverages, several people remarked that I seemed more Australian than American. I never thought to ask why. Is it because I accepted the people for having a different style of fun without becoming offended?
On another business trip, I accompanied my husband to Barbados, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas. This was a time before the ports limited the number of cruise ships allowed in port at one time. My husband and I had flown into St. Thomas. There were eleven cruise ships in port, so when they unloaded their passengers what we saw appeared to be a massive herd of stampeding people descending from the ships overrunning the town. Consequently, we decided to avoid the crowd of tourists. We ventured out of the village, up the hill past the homes to admire the views from the cliffs, and to enjoy the differences in their culture in how they lived versus our way of living at home.
As we strolled along the street in one neighborhood, a group of people came up behind us and threw their ice slushes at our backs. Here we had done nothing to prompt this behavior, except the locals presumed that we had arrived on the cruise ship. What we later learned is that the people from the cruise ships often robbed the villagers and the shops in town. So because we happened to be in St. Thomas at the same time as the cruise ships with all of the tourists, the locals assumed we were part of the destruction of their town.
Last Fall, an elementary school teacher here had to deal with a slight bullying situation with a group of elementary students. She sat down to discuss the subject of “being mean” and what they should have considered doing differently. One of the students was a girl from Russia. All of the students had to take home a form that explained the situation to their parents, who were to sign and return it. Eventually, all of the forms were returned in a timely manner except the form from the Russian family.
The teacher in calling the Russian family in regards to the form was told they would not sign it. The teacher asked the family to come in to discuss the situation, and why they would not sign the form. After meeting, the mother explained that this form would prevent her daughter from EVER obtaining a good job or career. She felt her daughter’s life would be permanently destroyed. The mother did not understand that the form, here in the U.S. was simply a method for explaining to the family the situation and to teach the kids an alternative behavior. This form was not going to be on the child’s record for life. The mother’s perceptions were formed by her experiences in Russia, so she had jumped to conclusions.
Then one day the Russian mother came to school with her daughter. The mother was shocked to learn that the teacher said, “Good Morning” to her students every day. The mother sternly requested that the teacher refrain from greeting her daughter. In a quandary the teacher asked why she couldn’t greet the child only to learn that the mother felt the teacher was spying on the little girl. The teacher was stunned! However, spying must be part of the culture in Russia. So the mother automatically assumed that children here in the United States are treated the same way as in Russia. Again, her cultural perceptions of how things worked in the United States were colored by her experiences in Russia. The Russian mother didn’t realize that life could be different here in the states.
Recently, I had an experience that on one hand I thought was hysterical, but on the other hand made me sit down to ponder what images we portray to other people.
My physical therapist has directed me on a relatively flat route to walk along the curvy, Poulsbo waterfront, up a short flight of stairs to town, down through the center of town past all of the shops, and back to the waterfront. I walk five circles amounting to roughly two and a half miles per day. Since I’m social, I enjoy talking to people along the way. I say “hi,” chat, or admire people and their dogs walking down at the park. Because I walk these five laps people often remark about the number of times they see me walking “all over town.” Also, since Poulsbo is an extremely Norwegian styled community, we have lots of tourists visit to enjoy the shops and bakeries or to check out the wildlife along the waterfront.
One particular warm, sunny day while walking my laps, I was dressed in a red short-sleeved t-shirt, navy jeans, and my white tennis shoes. One Asian couple, I’m guessing who were Chinese tourists in town, were busy taking pictures of the marina, the view of the bay, and the wildlife. In saying “hi” to them, I realized their knowledge of the English language was minimal. During my hour’s walk I saw this couple in several different locations along the waterfront and I said “hi” to them each time I quickly strode by them in passing.
My fourth time around through town and down to the marina, I saw this Asian couple in yet another spot. Finally, the woman turned to me asking, “C.I.A?” I was stunned! How could anyone imagine that I was spying on them? Who in God’s name would think I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency? I guess I’m well-disguised. But, because I’m friendly and say “hi” to people, does that make me seem like I’m “spying” or “checking up” on them?
Here, people from another country had come with a preconceived idea of what Americans are like. Had they read the latest articles about NSA spying on people?
This truly was an eye-opening experience.
“What we perceive and understand depends upon what we are.” Aldous Huxley