An American Abroad: 7 Tips for International Travelers

5:42 PM

The first time I left the United States, I was 16 years old. Since then I've lived in several different countries and visited quite a few more. I've also made just about every fool mistake you can in a foreign country and offended more people than I dare recall. I've also made some excellent friends along the way, who, with much patience, introduced me to their culture, put up with my inherent "Americanness," and enriched my life. Many of the blunders I've made while traveling are totally avoidable while some mistakes you just have to make on your own. Here following are a few tips from a fellow traveler that might help you not get chased  out of town by locals with pick axes and flaming torches. 

#1. You are not in America 

While abroad, always remember that you are not in America. This may seem like an obvious statement to you, but traveler beware, accepting this one simple thing will entirely change your experience. You have everyday expectations. You may not realize this, but trust me, you do. You probably expect things like clean water, a toilet with a handle instead of some bizarre string hanging from the ceiling, or chickens that live in pens and not with the general public. You probably think that air conditioning is for summer and heating is for winter. You probably expect toilets to be above the ground, not porcelain structures with a 90 degree angle, or better yet, a hole in a moving train. You also expect there to be doors on bathrooms, people who speak some  English, and reliable transportation. You expect to be treated with respect and not tricked, lied to, and or blatantly robbed. Even in the most Western of countries, there are expectations of yours that may not be fulfilled. Believe me when I say bathrooms are, for some reason, always one of them. 

#2. Pay Attention to Noise Levels 

This one is courtesy of Mr. Jake Fisher, a fellow Californian and missionary to Australia. We Americans tend to be a loud culture. A good Aussie friend of mine said she was absolutely mortified when at a mall with a group of young Americans because they were yelling to each other across the store. Personally, I never realize that I'm being loud, it's just so normal! The best I can say in regards to this, is just be aware, especially if you're in a pack of other Americans.

                     A good friend Sarah and I in Wurzburg, Germany 

#3. Do Mingle with the Locals

I find that when I travel in a herd of Americans, I tend to stick with them out of sheer familiarity. In the midst of all that newness, it's hard not to want something of home. As much as you can, however, do try to meet and speak with as many of the locals as possible. I can promise you, they are lovely! Even if you only speak a few words of their language that you happened to pull out of a guidebook on the flight over, give it a go. They really appreciate your effort. Most of the people in the world grow up learning several different languages, so they find it hard to understand that in the U.S. we tend to stick with English. Just like you expect people to at least try to speak English when visiting the States, try to learn a few phrases of the local language. It shows the people respect. 

#4. Study Up

If possible, learn cultural do's and don'ts before you arrive at your destination. Even while traveling in other English speaking countries, you may be surprised at the nuances of every culture. It may even help you pack better. For example, in Asia, modesty is quite a big deal, so be sure to wear pants and not short shorts! It's also very tropical in many places, so try to skip jeans and go for something lighter. On the subject of pants, they're called "Trousers" in the U.K. while "Pants" refer to your underwear. Like I said, it's the nuances. In Germany, be kind, don't bring up the war and in the South Pacific, don't bring up fanny packs because they mean something horribly, horribly different. 

#5. Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

This perhaps goes without saying, but many places are more dangerous than you realize. When at home in America, you tend to have a sixth sense about unsafe areas, even if not in your hometown; often, while abroad, however, you will get caught up in the strangeness of everything around you and not realize somebody's about to pick your pocket. In Thailand, I was simply walking down the street when a motorcycle zoomed past me. I felt my bag gently hit my side. Looking up, I saw the man on the motorcycle right himself, and realized he had just tried to steal my purse! Although completely flabbergasted, I had to say I was somewhat impressed by the effort. 

#6.Be Culturally Sensitive

Unfortunately, Americans have a pretty bad reputation as tourists. It's a bummer really, because I think we're rather nice. A lot of this comes from the fact that we constantly tout our country as "the best" while abroad. Apparently that's not very endearing. One of the best compliments I've ever received was that someone would have never guessed I was American. Um, thank you? I think we're awesome, but when abroad, focus on what's great about the country you're in. Instead of missing all the things about home that you have a new found appreciation for, enjoy how other people live. If some stuff does bother you, try to keep it to yourself and just love the people you're with. There are things about other cultures that are way better than ours! For example, every Asian culture I've been in is incredibly humble. The people are so kind and loving, they put you to shame. The Irish are hilarious (If they insult you in some way, take it as a compliment. Most likely, they're giving you a taste of the ol' banter.) The Germans are extremely loyal and if you treat them kindly, they'll be your friend for life. The Aussies are a rugged lot and the Kiwis (New Zealanders) are incredibly kind. 

#7. Laugh at Yourself

In all likelihood, you will do and say some of the stupidest things of your life while traveling. I think I've covered just about every perversity while attempting to become fluent in German. It will be embarrassing and you will make mistakes. You might very well offend people entirely by accident and no amount of pre-reading about a culture can prevent that. The biggest lesson I've learned while traveling is humility. Get a kick out of what a dork you are and how awkwardly you offend people while just trying to say hello in Mandarin, or how you ended up with a platter of squid while attempting to order a white wine. If you can laugh at your ridiculousness, traveling becomes way more fun and your stories get a lot better. 

Traveling is so worth it! I've seen more glimpses of God's heart and learned so much just from seeing other places and meeting so many different kinds of people. It's just plain fun and frankly and you won't leave those experiences unchanged. My international friends are some of the kindest and most fascinating people I've ever met and I wouldn't trade those relationships for the world (pun intended). So, get out of your comfort zone and see the world! It's waiting. 

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