“If you’re talking, all you’re doing is saying things you already know. When you’re listening, that’s when you start learning.” (Matt, fellow traveler in Fiji)
A few weeks ago in You Might Also Be a Brat, I addressed the most common questions I get when I talk to people about traveling solo, as a female. In this post, I’ll address the questions that fall into another category – those that I get while traveling as an American.
If you’re going to travel as an American, actually travel and meet other travelers and talk with locals, you’re going to get into and should prepared for conversations on tough topics. It should be said that I believe you should be prepared to, and actively have conversations on tough topics while at home, it just doesn’t seem the opportunity comes up. But when traveling, you’ll meet people who are educated on a wide range of topics and want to hear about it from the horse’s mouth (or, depending on their opinion of Americans and your preparedness/education on the topic, a different body part).
Positive, healthy discourse does not mean we only talk about the things we agree on. In the name of not stirring the pot, are we missing out on a real dialogue on issues that face our country and the world (my vote Is yes)? I look forward to these discussions on each of my stops and encourage people to get into them – by understanding the issues from others’ perspectives, we truly grow, or hone our own. I find these discussions inspiring and energizing. Don’t shy away from the opportunity to have real conversations in favor of political correctness (though, don’t be too shy to shut it don’t if it isn’t going anywhere – see the beauty standards section).
“See, I don’t think Americans are stupid.” Lukas said to me. He is English and we were talking in the hostel. “Most people think Americans are stupid, but I don’t.” At least I made an impression and we have one on our side. But Lukas seemed the exception. On another night, Alex and I talked politics and presidential history for hours. Why? “Our history [Australian] is so boring, so I spent a lot of time learning about American history, there’s so much more to it.” Below are the most common topics I get asked about and what people really seem to want to know.
Almost every person who guesses where I am from asks this. It was so common, I finally started asking people back why they made the assumption. From all of the people I asked, I got two responses. The most common was, “well, you’re polite.” Ouch. Second to some variation of “well, the accents are so similar and Canadians get really upset if you call them American, Americans don’t seem to mind if you guess Canadian and I don’t meet a lot of Americans traveling anyway, so it’s better to just hedge my bets.” I didn’t realize our neighbors to the North didn’t want to be associated with us, but am not surprised. I even tried the experiment myself, asking people who were clearly Canadian where in the States they were from. Have you ever called an Aussie a Kiwi or vice versa? It’s like that. Not recommended.
Marijuana is legal there! (or some variant referencing pot)
I am absolutely shocked at how many people know about the state of marijuana in the States. When people ask which state I live in, I rarely expect them to know Colorado (everyone knows California and New York, Texas and probably Florida). But without fail, no matter where I am, if the person knows Colorado, they know about the legalization of marijuana. Seriously, I was walking on the beach in Fiji and met a Fijjian who lives out in the bush and when I said Colorado, he went straight to it, “you guys are finally going to stop sending all your drug money to Mexico!” Or, I met a Brit in the Marshall Islands whose response was, “the pot state! Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure it’s known for more.”
Not only do they know about it, they want to talk about it. What has happened to crime rates? What kind of money is coming in through taxes? What impact is it having on society? What is the general reaction to it? We’re watching you! The States is paving the way for the rest of us! No pressure or anything.
What’s with the guns? (or something about guns/gun control)
Most people I talk with are curious about guns in the US. In many places, civilians can’t have guns, so they find it so strange that we do. Also, based on the news they hear, they think it’s like the Wild West and everyone is walking around with a pistol on their hip. Maybe in some parts of Texas. People want to know what it’s like to live in a place like that, where anyone could pull a gun on you at any time. Are you scared? Do you feel safe? Do you have a gun? Have you ever shot one?
Guns are a tough topic for me, and I think many Americans. I don’t own one and I don’t like them, but I have shot them (in the desert at bottles and cans). I understand that the constitution values a right to bear arms, but I also understand that we’ve found the constitution unfit for modern society in many ways since it was written (for example, I quite enjoy my right to vote, which wasn’t originally included). So what I don’t understand about guns is why that particular amendment is so touchy of a subject, why we can’t all get on the same page about it. And it seems to me that they’re important enough to regulate at a federal level, rather than giving states as much room as they have.
Some people argue that guns save lives. I’m not sure I buy it – are we counting lives that were “saved” from other guns? What I do know is that I was a student in high school when the shooting at Columbine happened. I never talked about it then, but have since with my classmates, and we all had mentally mapped out where we would go to in the school if we needed to run and hide. And I’m certainly not comfortable with that being in the back of high school students’ minds. The Aurora theater shooting also hit especially close to home for me when 28 team members from my company were in the theater. Watching a community take that kind of an injury is painful. It happened years ago and as the trial for Holmes just wrapped up this week, the scars are just starting to heal.
Guns are way too big of a topic to solve in these conversations nor do I wish to start the dialogue about it here, but if you’re traveling as an American, expect to get questions about it.
What’s the deal with the death penalty?
Like guns, the death penalty is a foreign concept in a lot of countries. It may have just been a hot topic for a while because I’m currently in Oceania and recently two Aussies were executed in Bali from the Bali 9 scandal which was the lead story of every news broadcast for weeks, but wow, a surprising amount of people want to talk about the death penalty. Seems like normal dinner conversation right?
The death penalty is one of many issues that has come up as I travel. People from all over the world want to know more about it, and how, as an American, I feel about it. These are tough questions. AFTER taking the time to understand the state of it in the US and the costs, to me, it seems like it is born from vengeance. It costs more than life in prison, has been proven to not deter criminal activity, has been so poorly administered and frankly, seems like letting someone off easy. What James Holmes was horrific. It stopped me in my tracks the other day when I saw the headline on someone’s computer screen that he was given life without parole. And I believe that he deserves to rot in whatever hell he believes in for the rest of his life, and hopefully he believes in the afterlife and can rot there too. But the death penalty is far more complicated than just knowing that someone did a bad thing, and I would urge people to take the time to know more about it before spouting off about it. It takes more than reading a headline on Facebook to understand an issue.
Education and/or healthcare
While these are two totally different issues, I’m combining them here because they typically receive the same reaction. It’s how much to XYZ?? We all know that the cost of secondary education has sky-rocketed, having a major impact on the amount of debt that students are carrying post-grad. More interestingly, I’d like to better understand the correlation of cost to subject matter selection. In Cuba, for example, where secondary is education is free, they boast the most doctors per capita and thus not only support their own healthcare system, but make significant contribution in programs such as Doctors Without Borders.
“What happens if you break your arm?” I was asked, referring to the healthcare system. I answered that I have health insurance, so I would go to the doctor, and get it fixed, and it would probably cost me a few hundred dollars in the end. “What if you didn’t have health insurance?” Great question (this was pre-Obamacare). I explained that I would either not be able to get it fixed or I would get it fixed and have one of two things happen: a debt upwards of thousands of dollars incurred or I could request it be written off/covered by the government. “So in the end, because your government doesn’t help you pay for it, it ends up having to pay for it?” Exactly
American beauty standards
This has come up less frequently, but I took exception to it and mention it here because of the way the last conversation I had about it progressed. The last time this came up was in New Zealand and I was talking with a Mauri.
“Women do too much for beauty.” He exclaimed as we finished a round of shots. Wow, I totally agree! What a profound statement coming from a man, in a bar. I agreed with him. “And it’s your fault” (he pointed at me. Wait, what? What did I do? “It’s America’s fault.” And he began to wax poetic about how American beauty culture has rippled around the world. This is where I stopped him and challenged that, while I agree that American beauty standards have women doing crazy things, it is not isolated to the US. “What about the women in China who have been binding their feet for centuries?” He didn’t have an answer. I asked about many other non-American beauty practices, and again, he had no answer. So while I agreed with his conclusion, I think he got their on faulty premises. And because of the fact that he wanted to have a conversation about the effects of American beauty standards on women, without listening to the experience of an actual American woman, I ended our foray into that topic there. Another round of shots.
Immigration and visas
This one is usually a lamentation of how difficult it is for travelers to acquire visas to come to the US, specifically to come and work. This came up quite frequently in Australia, where it is quite easy for young travelers (under 30) to get a one year working holiday visa, which can be extended to two years by doing a few months of agriculture work for citizens of all countries except the US. I guess that’s Australia’s way of getting back at us. But this working holiday visa is the reason that there are so many young travelers exploring all of Australia. They don’t have to save up enough to be on holiday for an entire year, just enough to get them there and find a job. Then they work jobs in different parts of the country, taking breaks to see what it has to offer. No surprise that these travelers wish they could do the same in the US, knowing that our country has too much to offer to cover in a quick holiday, but it’s way too expensive to save up for that much of pure travel. Additionally, I met quite a few soon-to-be students in US colleges who were excited to head to nowhere Kentucky or haven’t-heard-of-it Alabama simply because they were able to get visas to go to those schools.
Like most citizens of their own country, I know very little about our visa application process and standards. I’ve never had to apply for one. But I do know that last year congress made so little progress on immigration reform that presidential action was taken. That our college system is educating elite students who want to stay and build businesses in the US, but are sent back home to use their new education. That our agriculture system is built on the back of migrant workers. So at what point do we need to take a look at how and when we’re bringing talent into our country?
Impact of religion on policy and politics.
Naturally, all this talk about politics and religion comes up. Usually, I mention something about how we don’t have a national religion, up until it comes to making policy and legislative decisions. Chatting about this in Pohnpei, I received one of the most accurate retorts to that comment: “Oh, but you do have a national religion – Capitalism.” Down comes the boom and it’s so true. When we ascribe to capitalism as any devout religious practitioner would their faith, as many Americans in decision-making roles do, it adds a filter through which those decisions are made. Right, wrong, or indifferent on those decisions, we have to acknowledge that it has an effect. From here, I can only recommend folks better understand Rawls and his view on philosophical (not political) liberalism. Mostly people involved in these conversations come from places where religion has an extreme impact on their politics, they just don’t understand why we pretend that it doesn’t.
[this is recent, but has come up in almost EVERY conversation] So…umm..[awkward pauses]…this Donald Trump “thing”…is it…real?
As a person with a uterus, and a brain actually, I cannot understand the total [sorry, language, but it feels like the only way to describe what I’m seeing from afar] fucking-shit-circus of a show that is Donald Trump. Asterisk. I will agree with some that his “honesty” is bringing up issues that “wouldn’t be talked about otherwise”. I’m using air quotes because DT wants to talk immigration and says no one would be talking about it, but, ahem, the Repubs have been screeching about it for decades and it was, ahem, congress that made no decisions in 2014, leading to presidential action.
The way the man speaks to other people, even upper class white people, makes me shudder at the idea of him in a role of international diplomacy. The way the man talks about women makes me shudder at the idea of him having influence over legislation of my body. The way the man talks about minorities makes me shudder at the idea of the intricate ways in which immigrants, legal and illegal, have become such a huge part of our economic infrastructure, and that he has vision of pulling on one tiny string, but not seeing it will tear the whole fabric apart. The way the man has declared bankruptcy FOUR TIMES and remains afloat because of bailouts that he now looks down his nose on makes me shudder at the idea that he be at the helm with such influence on a pretty big bank account.
BUT, all that aside, this post has more been about what the conversations are, not my personal opinion. Each person who has asked me about DT seems almost afraid. Like they can’t even believe that him running, and receiving support, is a real thing, and what if, I might be one of his supporters. Like they think they’re being fed fake news about the US and DT is just a Trojan horse, while we’re scheming away at something else behind the scenes. Because, after all, there’s no way that this could actually be a real thing that is actually, really happening, right? Please?
So that’s going to wrap this series of common questions. I’ll continue to write in my journal about these conversations and am looking forward to the next in the Traveling while… series.