Culture Guilting, Patriotism, and Indifference

TravelerThere’s something magical in exploring the world. Visiting other countries, continents, even just cities can widen a person’s outlook on the world. It helps to draw people away from the self-focused mania in the US. It removes the traveler from their sense of normal and can grant a better perspective on the world. And yet, this thing which provides escape from normal has itself become normal. Everyone travels, be it international or across state lines. It’s thanks to travel that America is overflowing with enlightened and wise people with a balanced view of the world.

Hah.

I was raised in the church, so I had a lot of experience talking to and hearing from missionaries. I’m even related to a couple in Croatia. Additionally, I’ve spoken to several international teachers, study abroad students, and vacationers who regularly fulfill their wanderlust, not to mention my own international experience. In my time around these different travelers I’ve grown accustomed to three common types of people who travel. There are the short term missions/cultural exchange travelers (be they religious or secular, these are the people who spend anywhere from one week to two years abroad), the American Patriots (easily identified by their rejection of the culture they’ve paid to see; may be toting US flags), and finally the Half & Half travelers. Let me start by saying that each group has its good and bad aspects; however, some can be more exhausting to deal with than others.

“Are there really only three types?”

There are certainly more than just three, but these are the most common I’ve encountered. This list mostly covers those who travel for shorter periods. I won’t even begin to touch on those who stay in a country for decades, or even permanently. Those people are far more understanding and balanced than anyone on this list.

The Guilters

The first: short term missions/cultural exchange travelers. These are the people who boast their cultural sophistication, regardless of whether they’ve visited for a week or a year. They tend to wear their experience on their face, just waiting to tell you about the time they played football with the orphans of Brazil, and how that opened their eyes to the lackluster lifestyle of American culture. It’s these people who practice the unbearable art of culture guilting. Since their shopping spree at Akihabara, they’ve learned the evils of consumerism and convenience, and they’re here to make you feel bad about living in a first world country. It really doesn’t matter where these people go, because you can bet it’ll be better than America.

Mikael Kristenson

“In Europe, people actually stop to drink coffee inside the coffee shop.”

Yes. Apparently adding a drive thru to your establishment makes it impossible to stop in and visit with friends over a cup of coffee.

“Americans are so caught up in consumerism that they’ve forgotten how to live with just the necessities.”

Well I suppose that is one of the advantages of living in a first world country.

“People in Africa have things figured out much better than Americans.”

Go live in Africa then.

I want clarify that I do not hate other cultures. To the contrary, I think Americans can learn a lot from foreign lifestyles and experience. Heck, our country is based on combining other cultures. That’s why it’s called The Great American Melting Pot. However, that brings me to the next group: the American Patriot.

The Patriots

PatriotThe American Patriot is a symbol for everything Americans love, but in a completely inappropriate context. These are the Americans that other cultures mock. They travel, but no one knows why. It obviously would have been better if they’d stayed home to watch Duck Dynasty, drink Samuel Adams, and polish their Winchesters. Again, all of these things are fine, but when they’re displayed on a tour bus in Italy, it makes you want to lie when asked where you’re from. The fact is, these people are also the kind who give The Great American Melting Pot a bad name. It’s all about conforming to their views of society and culture, rather than celebrating the diversity of the world, or even America for that matter. They expect those around them to melt into their idea of what Americans “are.”

“I love the scenery, but I wish I could get my hands on a good hamburger.”

I completely agree.

“I’m going to demand a hamburger at every restaurant in my most offensive accent.”

Die.

“America sure is great.”

Yeah!

“America is the best country in the world.”

Love that American pride.

“I’m going to tell everyone I meet that America is better than their country.”

Nope.

“I’m going to remind everyone that we ____ (beat, saved, sent aid to) them in the war.”

Why are you terrible?

“Everyone from different cultures needs to learn manners and forego their savage ways.”

Did you even watch Pocahontas?

I’m sure we’ve all met these people, and I applaud their patriotism. However, I also cringe when they get up in everyone’s face about it. Yes, I get it, you’re an American. Yes, I get it, you want everything to be the same as in America. That’s exactly the problem though. People often forget that somethings are only good or bad in certain contexts. If every country in the world was like America, then American ideals, behavior, and convenience would lack meaning. It’s through the bad that we see the good, through the mediocre that we determine the exceptional, and through love that heartbreak becomes so poignant. It’s through observing other cultures that we begin to learn what we love/hate about our own. It’s not a Melting Pot we should be aiming for, but a whole feast of different dishes and cultures. Who wants boring ‘ol soup when you can have turkey and salad and soup and bread, etc…

The Half & Half

Bored planeThat brings me to the last type of traveler, the Half & Half. H&Hs’ biggest flaw is they often fail to fully experience any culture, be it foreign or home. The issue with American Patriots is their inability to experience any culture other than American. Short term/Cultural exchange travelers are just the opposite – they reject their own culture in favor of something new (the problem being that they only favor the new because it’s new). H&Hs, however, see different cultures as something wonderful while completely distinct from each other, topped off with a dose of indifference.

“I liked their country.”

Yeah?

“I also like my own country.”

That’s good.

“Both have good qualities and bad qualities.”

Which one do you like better?

“Eh… Probably mine.”

Why’s that?

“All my stuff is there.”

This isn’t to say that having a preference is bad. We all prefer things. That’s just what we do. What’s bad is failing to see any side but your own when observing cultures (and pretty much everything). Visiting another country isn’t about finding the flaws in your own culture, and it’s not a “my dad is stronger than your dad” argument. It’s an interaction of two cultures. It’s a joint experience. We shouldn’t be trying to prove which culture is the best. Rather, we should be willing to observe, learn, accept, and reject aspects of all cultures.

SupermanWhat if Batman and Superman started hanging out and all of a sudden Superman says, “You’re too dark.” Batman, being young and impressionable, agrees, and he dawns a new suit, strikingly similar to Superman’s. Batman would still have to take down the gangs and psychopaths in Gotham, he would still be called the Dark Knight, but his new outfit would lack the darkness for which he was named. He wouldn’t strike fear into the hearts of criminals; he would be a joke. His name, his villains, his background, and his personality would no longer be fitting because Batman wasn’t meant to dress up in brightly colored, dorky outfits. That’s what Robin is for.

The thing about this subject is that there’s no ultimate answer to the question, “who is better?” There can’t be. Naming a winner would be pointless, completely subjective, and more than a little bit racist. We should be focused on so much more than who is better: like what each culture offers to the world as a whole, and how we can understand those different from us.

“But Taylor, isn’t this argument just a feeble attempt to justify your fear of committing to an actual opinion?”

Well, Maybe.

Taylor Swanby is a writer from Washington who blends perspective and satire with  common sense. Adding a pinch of sarcasm, he aims to entertain and make people think by cutting the crap, presenting his own crap, and then cutting that, too.
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