Traveling as an American
November, 2007 by Mitch Anderson
Mitch Anderson, Egypt, 2006
While the situation in Iraq is improving somewhat, there is still some animosity to Americans in the world. Traveling abroad makes us all “little Ambassadors” of our country and culture, and since the US took the role of a self-appointed world policeman, the American citizens are so closely watched. Over the last two years I have been traveling on four continents for the filming of a political documentary called “The World Without US”, it has been a labor of love and pain that filled my life with a great amount of international experience. Here are few tips from the things I’ve learned.
- Learn a few words in the local language.
This goes a long way in warming up to the locals, and that’s available anywhere you go. When you take the trouble of pronouncing a local “Thank you” or “hello” this shows people that you acknowledge them as Koreans, Kuwaiti or whatever they are. I remember we were in Seoul, Korea and we were shopping with a local guide for cable we needed. I noticed that in every store we entered the guide will shout “AnioHaSaiyo”. I dint have time to learn what it meant, but I figured it must be Hello, so I started to repeat that after him to every shopkeeper. It really warmed up the attitude of everyone.
- Avoid jokes with religious connotations.
We almost got in trouble with this one in Kuwait. Our local guide Abdullah snooze and my cameraman, a man of wit, threw at him an “Allah bless you”. It made sense in a way, “God bless you” in an Moslem country must be “Allah bless you”. Luckily Abdullah was quite liberal in his views and took it well, but I still believe it was a risky joke. To simply speak of Allah while not being a Moslem is skating on think ice in the Middle East. I would avoid it unless you know the people you’re meeting really well.
- Learn a few basic facts on the country.
Don’t blunder with small details. Most countries are not “melting pots” as we are, so there is a strong sense of national and religious pride. Austrians speak German, but they hate being considered or called Germans, and they really don’t like being mixed up with Australians. Iranians are Middle Eastern and Moslem, but they are not Arabs. All of the Lebanese are Arabs, but about half of them are Christians… There are about 3 things to learn and separate about your interlocutors: Language, Nationality and Religion. It will save you a lot of frowns.
- Don’t be an obvious American.
Harley Davidson jackets are cool, and so are the ones with the American Eagle on the back, but not advisable while traveling abroad. Don’t wear camouflage jackets either, they are associated with US militarism. Remember, we are more or less the world policeman, and whether that’s good or bad. You don’t want to exemplify that at a personal level.
While traveling in the Middle East, my favorite garment to wear was a jacket I bought in Vancouver a couple of years back. (It said “Canada” on the top left of my chest)
- Don’t demand all goods and services from home.
Paris, hotel lobby: An American couple is outraged for not having HBO in their room and complained to the reception. Maybe they had a point, the hotel was quite expensive and at one point you do need to kick back and watch something familiar. It was a sure way to antagonize the local stuff, which took it for arrogance and ignorance. If you have doubts about what’s reasonable to demand, turn the tables and see what we have to offer. Could you find French language programming in a nice hotel in New York? Probably not.
Mitch Anderson filming establishing shots from Mesada, 2006Be careful with your camera.
And be careful with the wording around the camera. We were taking establishing shots in the Middle East so my cameraman goes: “Lets set the tripod here and shoot the children as they come out”. Our guides frowned. Here we are, two Americans getting ready to “Shoot”. I assured our guides really fast that we’re only gonna film them. They knew, but still… Be careful about pictures of any females in the Moslem world, and that includes Moslem neighborhoods of Europe. You can get in trouble for taking pictures of a fully wrapped female with her back at you that is 50 yards away. A Kuwaiti man got very offended this way. Our guides defused the situation. We erased the footage.
Masgoof: Iraq's national dish Eat their food.
Ethnic food are tough to take at times, no doubt about it, but don’t make that obvious. The rest of the world is a lot more aggressive with their use garlic and spices, so be prepared. Making a face to a local plate can easily antagonize your hosts. Humankind has used food sharing for bonding since time immemorial, so reactions to food run very deep. I found out that asking to try a local cookie you saw in a storefront would warm up your hosts quite a bit. I remember a funny story while we were filming in Taiwan. It was dinnertime and our hosts decided to take us somewhere “special”. I expected this jade decorated Chinese restaurant with huge fish tanks and dim sum appetizers. Instead, after half an hour in the Taipei traffic, we end up at a burger joint, just for us. I laughed and told them I’m having Chinese at home twice a week and I didn’t come here have a burger. They laughed and we went across the street where they served snake and coagulated goose blood. While I still think I am a man of the world, I went for the chicken.
- Smile! I wont explain this one. It is the easiest foreign language, and it always works. And remember that travel is still a lot of fun.
Mitch Anderson in Cairo(right), Abdulah, local guide (left)
Mitch Anderson (left )and Jason Tomaric (right), Kuwait 2006
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503 - 1505
2008 © Mitch Anderson.
Mitch Anderson is the producer of the film "The World Without US" . This feature-length documentary debates the implications and consequences of US military involvement in the world today. Future scenarios in the absence of the US intervention are well debated and substantiated by experts and ordinary citizens whose lives have been affected by the American presence in different regions. World renowned author Niall Ferguson PHD brings his insights along side James Lilley (Former US Ambassador to China) and many others. For more information and trailers please see http://www.theworldwithoutus.com