Thursday, May 14, 2015

In defense of American tourists

I came perilously close to buying this T-shirt and making it a permanent part of my official international travel wardrobe:

The T-shirt is sold, appropriately enough, by the fine folks at struggling teen mall retailer and purveyor of amusing pizza-themed underwear American Eagle Outfitters, and the “All ‘Murican” refers only to the wearer of the shirt and not the shirt itself. (The shirt is “imported” per its product description, manufactured in what I’m sure are humane and not-at-all sweatshop-like conditions in a country whose workers are treated fairly and unexploitily1.)

And despite it appealing to the hipster-asshole side of me that likes things drenched in irony, I decided against it in part because wearing that shirt abroad is basically akin to wearing a shirt that says “I’M OBNOXIOUS, PLEASE MUG ME” emblazoned across the front.

But mostly I decided against it because I felt like I’d be reinforcing all manner of American tourist stereotypes: loud, inconsiderate, closed-minded, and zealously patriotic to the point of xenophobia.

Here’s the weird thing, though—the only people I’ve ever heard complain of obnoxious American tourists are other Americans, usually as a way of signaling that they’re among the few “good ones” and not the one of the plebs in Hawaiian shirts who boarded in Zone 3 and will make a beeline for the nearest McDonald’s as soon as they land. (I’ve also heard it from Canadians, but—I mean this with affection and respect because I have nothing but genuine love for our northern neighbours—we basically think of you guys as nice Americans with poutine.)

And while I don’t doubt that there are many non-Americans who find us annoying, the perpetuation of this stereotype feels a little bit like haughty yet insecure Americans trying to prove their worldly bona fides by shitting on their fellow countrymen—or, at least, their poorer, middle-American countrymen. This isn’t just elitist; it seems to be factually inaccurate.

Consider this: I’m sure there are plenty of Americans who are disrespectful and disdainful of other cultures, but those people generally don’t travel internationally. Hell, they don’t even get passports—only around 40 percent of us have one, despite the American passport being among the most powerfulif not the most powerful—in the world.

That’s not to say that, if you don’t have a passport, you’re uncultured ‘Murican swine; for instance, while the $135 application and execution fees for first-time passport applicants aren’t oppressive, they’re not nothing, and could very well represent a hardship for many families in a tight financial spot. But getting a passport is an affirmative step that at least suggests an interest in broadening one’s horizons and meeting people who aren’t like you.

Plus, consider how notoriously overworked the average American is and how few vacation days we get. (And consider a pervasive corporate culture that guilts employees who actually use their vacation days for anything other than sick days—and even then, are you sure you can’t wash down a couple of Advils with a bottle of Purell and come in for a few hours?) When an American—especially a working- and middle-class American—wants to travel abroad, it’s kind of a big deal: we’ve made the decision to cobble together several paychecks and our meager PTO not to do the easy thing (Las Vegas, Disney World, etc.) but to visit someplace new and unfamiliar that takes us out of our comfort zones. That’s kind of a weird thing for an asshole tourist to do.

What is fair, though, is saying that many of us are less sophisticated travelers. But to deride American tourists for that is like going to a Planet Fitness and laughing at fat people at the treadmill. Yes, I get it—we look hopelessly lame in Old Navy tees and cargo shorts2; our working knowledge of other countries is gleaned largely from Roadblocks and Detours on The Amazing Race; and we speak only one language because our high school only required two years of French, and even then, we squeaked by based on what we learned from Muzzy3.

But there’s a lot that’s great about American tourists. We’re friendly and warm and whatever your accent is, we’re instantly charmed by it. We’re excited and enthusiastic about everything, and we don’t bother pretending we’re not. We might not know your language, but we spent the plane ride over Googling how to say please and thank you and how are you doing? and, damn it, we’re going to do our best to make that work before moving onto pantomimes. And because of our country’s ridiculous labor laws, we tip absurdly well. We may be annoying sometimes, but I think there’s a lot to love about us.

My personal conspiracy theory is that this “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype is just a way for some Americans to keep the rest of us away from the world, sort of like how some folks don’t want their favorite band to become too popular. And the sad thing is, it works—at least some of those 60 percent of Americans who don’t have passports have to be people who’ve been told that the rest of the world will hate them so they don’t even bother. That’s bullshit.

So, my fellow Americans: stop with this stereotype. Stop repeating it—it’s not self-deprecating; it’s condescending, because you know you’re not talking about yourself when you say it. Stop fearing it—it’s not true, and there are plenty of places who will love to have you.

But most importantly, stop letting it flourish. There’s an easy way to stop it, and that’s by going abroad and being a counterexample. Plenty of American qualities make us natural travelers if only we’d just go. We’re curious, polite, adaptable, and a little brave—so let’s go. Worst comes to worst, there’ll probably be a McDonald’s when we get there.

* * *

I know this is a defense of American tourists, but can I take a moment to defend tourists in general? I never really understand why people complain about tourists visiting their town, or why so many bumper stickers and hacky cartoonists so frequently express a desire to murder visitors with guns.

Robert Ariail/Spartanburg Herald-Journal

When a tourist visits, what they’re basically saying is, “Hey, I think your city is so cool that I’m going to use what little spare time I have to check it out, and I’m going to pump all this sweet money into your local economy. Hope you don’t mind!”

And no, I don’t mind. I’m glad you’re here. Enjoy the beaches, y’all, and don’t forget there are PubSubs at Publix if you get hungry. I might be biased, though—people from out of state tend to be better drivers than Floridians, so, if nothing else, the roads feel safer when they’re here4.

1Not an actual word.

2This was an actual outfit I wore. A lot. In my defense, Italy’s pretty damn hot and everybody done scared me about muggers.

3Or Dora the Explorer, for these damn latter-millenials with their youth and their Instagram and their damn 21st century Nickelodeon.

4For the purpose of this moment of empathy, I’m not counting snowbirds as tourists. Those people will kill you.

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