American cruisers through foreign eyes

pulau-gamfi

The coconut telegraph, as the cruiser-to-cruiser communication is jokingly referenced, is good for a lot of things. The clearance process like in Vava’u, Tonga. A great deal on brie at the Carrefour in ‘Ārue. An unmarked shoal by the Santa Inez Islands. But don’t let the coconut telegraph shape your perception of a country or culture before you arrive: assess from your own experiences instead. Now flip that around. How often do we show up in another country and find ourselves judged based on our US nationality?

Identifying ourselves as Americans

Do you fly your US flag on Totem? We’ve been asked this a number of times since coming back. The assumption is that flying the US flag is asking for trouble, because people don’t like Americans. You know what? It’s not our experience at all. We don’t fly our US flag very often, but that’s because UV damage is killer on fabric, I won’t fly a ragged flag (disrespectful!), and it’s expensive to replace. We try to make it last and as a result it doesn’t live on the transom of Totem full time, and flies only on special occasions… not because we’re worried about being identifiable in an anchorage as The American Boat.

cape-town-headline-feb-2016

South African news stand in February. Headline reads: “Election in the USA: knock-out punch in Iowa” and “Why is the state so important?”

How Americans are perceived abroad

So much of geopolitics is connected to the US and our economy that for better or for worse, people outside the USA often are pretty dialed in to what’s going on in our country. It was still startling earlier this year to see daily headlines in South African newspapers following the US presidential elections, like this one in early February about the Iowa caucus results.

Of course people will have opinions, but in the rare occasions where we’ve been at the receiving end of bad treatment, it had everything to do with the person directing it at us rather than the fact that we were Americans.

Our reception based on being American ranged from neutral to positive. Sometimes, it helped to identify ourselves as Americans. Papua New Guinea is a former dependency of Australia, a complicated history and relationship; we found our reception sometimes improved after clarifying we were American and not Aussie. In Indonesia, pride in the US President’s childhood ties to the country sometimes spurred positive outbursts of “OBAMA!” once our nationality was known.

Who doesn’t like Americans?

During eight years overseas, a period which aligns closely with the Obama administration, the people who seem most likely to have negative pre-conceptions about Americans are… well, what do you think? We’ve been through a lot of territory in that time. Go on, guess.

ladies

Making friends across boundaries: Jayapura, Indonesia

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s been fellow travelers from other English-speaking countries. Brits, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, etc. Little brother complex? Resentment of being influenced downstream by US policies or economics? Some rationales are easier to understand, and some are silly, as expressed by a Kiwi cruiser one evening in an international gathering over sundowners. “I hate Americans!” he blurted out. “What,” said Jamie, “all 320 million of us?”

Representing

I strongly believe that it’s important for us to be good ambassadors while traveling. Like it or not, many people we meet are paying attention to US politics and will have preconceived opinions. And many of them may be apprehensive that we have elected a bellicose reality-TV star who has fanned flames of bigotry and thinks climate change is a hoax. Some of the first messages I had waking up the morning after election day were from friends we’ve made overseas with responses that could be most graciously summarized as “what the heck?!”

It’s even more important now to be those good ambassadors, and demonstrate that the media impressions people in other countries get about America is, well, just media, and the outcome of the election almost certainly is about desire for change and not offensive ideology. Shine that through everyday actions! Outside of the fact it is simply the right thing to do, I believe that individual actions make a difference and how we interact with people as travelers can have a ripple effect.

How not to be an ugly cruiser

Be respectful. If there’s a cardinal rule to be a good ambassador, this is it. Is there any emotion more likely to breed ill will than disrespect? I remember watching a shirtless guy ranting at the Port Captain in a smallish town in Mexico over some unimportant frustration: the guy handled that interaction badly on multiple levels, and it didn’t help his case.

Remember you’re a guest. You don’t have a right to be in (fill in the blank: country X): rather, you are privileged to have the opportunity. Their culture, their rules, their standards, your responsibility to be attuned and inline.

Be indiscriminately kind and patient. Sure, things take longer sometimes, or happen in unfamiliar ways that make your life a little more difficult. It’s not meaningful. Repeat mantras about being a guest, and showing respect.

Seek local company. Interact with people besides other cruisers. Thoughtful interest is appreciated and you’ll probably learn something. Language barrier? No problem. Surprisingly few common words are necessary to communicate. Authentic interest reflects positivism.

Kids in Fakarava, French Polynesia - June 2010

Kids in Fakarava, French Polynesia – June 2010

Assume the best in others. Like a memorable cruiser we knew once said, “the world is full of beautiful people.” Enter every interaction with that in mind, not the possibility that they are somehow out to take advantage of you, and flip off the internal voice that distrusts. I don’t mean be naïve and ignore your gut, but start from a positive assumption. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most suspicious cruisers we knew were the most frequently plagued by petty theft.

Don’t complain about local standards. OK, so we all commiserate in the cockpit conversation about things that are challenging in an unfamiliar place, whether it’s the selection of produce in the market or the bus schedule. But for deeper differences, if you really don’t like them? Please, go somewhere else, instead of sharing your disdain. Mobility is one of the great luxuries of living on a boat.

Have a sense of humor. Be open to making fun of yourself when finding how people react to you! Remember that laughter is also a reaction to confusion or nervousness, like… when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone in a different language/country/culture.

This week a friend of ours said “…we can, all of us, commit to not allowing the prejudice and hurtful in our lives and around us and reach out to other folks and show them, through example and deeds, that other folks are good and we are worthy of each other. The alternative is to bask in our moral superiority, calling out the other side, and telling ourselves – ‘Well, I am not like those people.’” He’s referring to the post-election domestic dialogue in the US, and it’s spot on there but holds a greater truth. Our human family has so much more in common than we do holding us apart! Thank you for the words, John, and the reminder.

jamie-patrick

Jamie and Patrick talk politics and disenfranchisement. Near New Hanover, Papua New Guinea

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29 Responses to American cruisers through foreign eyes

  1. Alan November 15, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    What a fantastic view of the world and our role in it. May the world continue to smile on your family.

  2. Yvette November 15, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    Traveling around, the only people I ever met who disliked me for being American were Europeans- Germans more than anywhere else. Honestly, movies are a huge part of that perception- if I ask “should I judge your country based on how it’s shown in movies?” and the mistake is usually realized. The second one is, honestly, most people do not understand the sheer size of the USA geographically.

    Finally, of course, some people are just jerks and will use any excuse to be one. I always say the best thing to learn when traveling is there are idiots in every culture, because “people are nice/ the same everywhere” is a far easier one to learn, and learning to not paint everyone from one culture with the same brush when you meet a jerk is often harder!

    • Behan November 15, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

      Seeing as we’ve done exactly zero cruising in Europe yet, maybe that’s one reason we’ve never had a problem? I hope not!

      • Yvette November 16, 2016 at 6:48 am #

        It could be, I’ve met all but a handful of these people within Europe now that I think about it. They are of course nowhere near a majority.

        I feel one is more likely to meet a rude waiter in Europe who hates all tourists over someone who dislikes Americans in particular.

  3. susan November 15, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    Be careful with your haphazard guessing as to why people react the way they do referring to the ‘little brother etc’ comment. Your guess can only reinforce those beliefs.

    • Behan November 15, 2016 at 8:13 pm #

      I’ll readily admit that’s a poor way to describe it, but I’m stuck. Help me out: alternate descriptions welcomed for, well, whatever that weirdness is!

      • Sandra November 17, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

        I agree. As a Canadian, that comment irritated me. So typical. The issue I have with Americans in general is the attitude that they are the best country in the world (you’re not), that you’re the only ones with freedom (nope) and the general attitude of being better tun everyone else. National pride is one thing (we Canadians have plenty) but constantly boasting that you’re the best gets old.

        Canadians are little brother to no one.

        • Behan November 17, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

          Hi Sandra, thanks for the comment. Of course, the generalization you’re making about Americans is off-base, but I understand that my comment may have felt like a dig (it’s NOT intended that way and I’d love help better articulating the point if you have suggestions) and some folks feel the kneejerk reaction to dig back. peace.

  4. Richard November 16, 2016 at 12:32 am #

    Hi Totemites,

    Wonderful attitude nurtured by the experience of becoming citizens of the world.

    The comment that others opinions of Americans are often the product of “learning” from movies is spot on. And once that learning is cast aside, people are just people.

    On the other hand it can be startling to discover how much someone from a foreign country knows about the US.
    Years ago I rode a mule three days from the end of the road in search of permanent snow in the mountains of Colombia. Along the way we stopped and chatted with a shoeless campesino who was hoeing his bean field. In the course of the conversation he asked, “Who really killed Kennedy”.

  5. Dave Sender November 16, 2016 at 8:31 am #

    Great information. You covered the topic openly and frankly. Parents and teachers should use your post for discussion. Read a paragraph and ask for comments. Thank you.

  6. Bruce Stewart November 16, 2016 at 10:43 am #

    Dear Behan&Jamie – as parents, it looks like you chose the very best and worst of times to bring your family home to visit their native land. It will be interesting to see what views your children take back of their compatriots as a society. Btw, we just returned from 5 months sailing the Greek islands and made friends with a great cruising couple, who just happened to be Americans. It’s really more about the character of the individual rather than their nationality. Best regards – Aussie Bruce.

  7. Fred Roswold November 16, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    Years ago we had these same discussions with other cruisers about flying the flag while in foreign ports, especially ports in Islamic or otherwise possibly hostile countries. Many cruisers said they chose to not fly the flag for fear that it would make them a target. “Why bring attention to oneself?” they asked. I wondered what John Paul Jones would have thought of that view. I replied that if I was fearful I should not go to those places, and that I did not want to hide behind anonymity. So we flew our American flag, a large one, admittedly sometimes with a little trepidation, but everywhere we were welcomed and people were friendly to us. Maybe it was just luck, or maybe most people everywhere are better than the way stereotypes sometime depict them.

    But YES, the sun does degrade the flag. We take ours down at sea, hoisting it only when we pass closely to a vessel (showing colors). We always fly it in anchorages, but rarely in a marina.

    And, one of the great joys is when we get a new flag and put it up for the first time. It makes us feel great. West Marine has sent us several over they years, we keep them all, and by now we have several spares.

    • Behan November 17, 2016 at 9:26 am #

      I love that New Flag Feeling too!! We’ll pick up another before we leave the US this year.

  8. Rose November 17, 2016 at 12:15 am #

    I guarantee the Kiwi cruiser was joking. Our sense of humour doesn’t always translate well into American English. 🙂

    • Behan November 17, 2016 at 9:26 am #

      Well, we’ve spent enough years hanging tight with Kiwis to be reasonably in tune culturally – trust me to know when someone is joking, and when they’re “joking/notjoking”.

  9. Jannie Lubbe November 17, 2016 at 10:34 am #

    Hi, I am only started to follow you from not so long ago i’m sorry to say. Been following another circumnavigation blog ‘Tahina’ Thats where I stumbled on your website. I am kind of back reading your blogs but am enjoying it. your translation of the headlines are a bit off, it should be: “Election in the USA: blood nose in Iowa” and :”Why is that state so important?” Changing the meaning of the sentence, thats why I though to mention it. You can take my word on it, Afrikaans is my home language, South-African.

    • Behan November 17, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

      Thanks so much for the correction – mine was based on Google Translate! Different (and still bang on with the bigger point).

  10. gerry November 17, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

    Sorry Behan, but ‘Little Brother’ is a no no – and I’m from Belize. Sorry, England but you get my point.

    I’m keeping my flag under wraps too.

    Good wishes, Gerry

    • Behan November 17, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

      As commented above, I know it’s not very gracious but I’m struggling to better articulate the experience… ideas welcome.

      • Dave November 20, 2016 at 12:24 am #

        The US is the only superpower left in the world and it has been that way for 25 years now. The US has to act as the world’s policeman and you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
        Examples, the US didn’t intervene in Rwanda so the Rwandan genocide is your fault. The US did intervene in Somalia but not enough so Somalia is your fault. What is happening right now in Venezuela is your fault.
        Politicians are always going to direct the anger of their people towards the big untouchable nation so they don’t have to answer for their own failed policies and corruption.
        I’m a Brit so I’m just glad the world is finally blaming someone else for everything that goes wrong! 😉

  11. Rena Szabo Masters November 17, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    There are ignorant people in every culture. Including the American.

    I actually found your post a little judgemental against Aussies. Kiwi’s, German, Canadians and every other first world race except Americans.

    • Behan November 17, 2016 at 8:29 pm #

      Ignorance everywhere, or course and unfortunately, but ultimately dwarfed by wonderful humans. At least, the latter point was the intended thrust of the article. Sorry you found it judgemental, but… well, honestly, “every other first world race except Americans”?! You didn’t read it, really.

  12. Meghann November 18, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    I totally agree with the need to enter each situation with the assumption toward positive. A person’s demeanor is palpable.

    As much as I agree with what you said, I must admit that I also cringed a bit with the “little brother complex” analogy. Not entirely culturally sensitive. Oops! 🙂 I am American – Native American – but I quite agree with Sandra’s comment above. Growing up in the states, we do learn that we are the best country in the world, the only truly free country, the only country where a poor child can grow up to be president, etc. Not only do all of our teachers say this to us in school, but that’s what anybody running for a public office says in their speeches. The first time I left the United States was as an exchange student at the age of 16. It was also the first time that I realized the US is not in fact the only free country. That was so strange to me! And studies on social mobility also show that the US is in fact not the best country for opportunity. There are many wonderful things in the states. I love visiting my family there every year, and my husband would love to get to live there someday (unfortunately, as a foreign doctor, this is incredibly difficult, nearing on impossible). But, I do not believe that it is the best country in the world….and data backs that up.

    That all said, I love this post:) Cultural awareness, positive attitude, respect and the desire to learn and understand can really take a person (or sailing family:) a long way!!

    Hugs from Saba!

  13. Quimby November 24, 2016 at 7:10 am #

    Again I’m saying this as an American who has lived in Australia for the past 20 years – Being judged for being an American was MUCH worse under GWB and will be MUCH, MUCH worse under Trump. Most of your time cruising was with Obama in the White House – and he’s generally very popular overseas. GWB was seen as a bumbling baboon and Trump is seen as . . . Well, if I said it, it’d involve a lot of profanity, so I’ll spare you. I fully expect to hide my Americaness as much as I can for the next 4 years so that I am not constantly asked, “Why did you guys vote for him?” (When I am asked, I intend to point out that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and Trump was elected with less than 25% of the vote. How’s that for a functional democracy?)

    With regards to the “little brother” comment – In my opinion, it has more to do with Americans’ very overt patriotism. Pretty much everyone loves their country, as I’m sure you know, and as I found out the hard way my first time in Egypt. (“What do you think about our country?” “Well, to be honest with you, it’s pretty dirty, and I can’t believe the way you treat women.” “What are you saying? How dare you! We are the best country in the world! How can you possibly say such terrible things!” And on and on. I soon learned, whenever I’m asked that question, the safest answer is, “Oh, it’s just wonderful, absolutely lovely, best place I’ve ever been.”). Your average Americans is extremely overt about their patriotism, and firmly believe in this concept of American exceptionalism, which is really rather annoying. For example Americans will chant, “We’re number one!” I’ve never met anyone from any other country that uses this chant; and I’m pretty well-travelled. It’s a meaningless chant, because, number one at what? And the implication is, of course, that every other country is inferior, which, of course, isn’t true. If you look at the UNHDR HDI for instance, the US is usually somewhere between 10 – 15; meaning there are several countries that score better on a number of measurements (health, education, gender equality, etc.)

    • Behan November 25, 2016 at 8:39 am #

      REALLY, Quimby… “For example Americans will chant, “We’re number one!” I’ve never met anyone from any other country that uses this chant; and I’m pretty well-travelled. It’s a meaningless chant, because, number one at what? ” I’m making no such claims, and, well–you’re just making my point here…

      • Quimby November 26, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

        Wow. What point would that be, exactly? I don’t think your tone is justified; I was trying to explain why it is that many non-Americans are annoyed by Americans. I very specifically did not say “ALL” Americans or even “MOST” Americans – but Americans are the only nationality that chant “We’re Number One,” – and you simply cannot deny they chant it; just watch any Olympics coverage. When a large number of people from any nationality chant something like that – which by its very nature demeans and denigrates every other country out there – of course it’s going to be annoying to people who aren’t from that country, who will naturally wonder, Number one at what?

        So, what point am I making for you? For someone who claims to be culturally-sensitive and well-travelled, you are proving yourself neither by the easy offense you’re taking here.

  14. Quimby November 26, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

    You claim to be well-travelled and culturally sensitive. However, you are proving yourself to be neither.

    Exactly what point am I making for you? You cannot deny that Americans (and no other nationality) routinely chant “We’re Number One” – Just watch any Olympics coverage. If the US is #1 than obviously every other country is worse than the US. When this claim is made, with nothing to back it up, of course it’s frustrating and annoying to non-Americans.

    Note that I did not say ALL Americans or MOST Americans. But as a group, Americans will chant this while no other nationality will. Even at the Ashes (a hotly contested cricket match between Australia and the UK, where sledging is common and the fans routinely join in chants and jeers) neither the Australian nor the UK fans chant “We’re Number One.” This is unique to Americans.

    So, exactly what point am I making for you? Because from where I’m sitting, you’re proving the stereotype of arrogant Americans who think they’re too good to listen and learn from others.

  15. Quimby but posting under another name since apparently you've banned me for making a comment you don't like November 26, 2016 at 6:30 pm #

    You claim to be well-travelled and culturally sensitive. However, you are proving yourself to be neither.

    Exactly what point am I making for you? You cannot deny that Americans (and no other nationality) routinely chant “We’re Number One” – Just watch any Olympics coverage. If the US is #1 than obviously every other country is worse than the US. When this claim is made, with nothing to back it up, of course it’s frustrating and annoying to non-Americans.

    Note that I did not say ALL Americans or MOST Americans. But as a group, Americans will chant this while no other nationality will. Even at the Ashes (a hotly contested cricket match between Australia and the UK, where sledging is common and the fans routinely join in chants and jeers) neither the Australian nor the UK fans chant “We’re Number One.” This is unique to Americans.

    So, exactly what point am I making for you? Because from where I’m sitting, you’re proving the stereotype of arrogant Americans who think they’re too good to listen and learn from others.

  16. Quimby November 26, 2016 at 8:08 pm #

    My sincere apologies for the.multiple postings. They weren’t showing up at my end, so I thought that you’d blocked me so I couldn’t defend myself, which is a very cowardly thing to do. You can delete them, or not. I really don’t care. I will say however that when you ask for suggestions – multiple times – you really should not become so defensive when people take you at your word and offer them. I have 20 years experience living, working, and travelling in other countries throughout the world. I am married to a foreigner who has been to hundreds of countries and had many interactions, many of them bad, with Americans. My comments
    are not ill-informed and are much less offensive than you attributing it (with no evidence to back you up) to people in other countries feeling inferior that they aren’t American (which is exactly the way your “little brother comment” comes across.)

    In the future, if you really don’t want to hear dissenting perspectives, please don’t ask for them. If you sincerely sorry want to learn from others, then have an open mind and listen, ask questions to clarify, and try to understand, before you go straight into attack mode.

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