The process of establishing a phone or Internet connection for a foreigner in India is a more complicated one than I originally thought it would be, and like the other American students I am travelling here with, I was initially unaware of all the necessary documentation requirements. Even with the assistance of our program director, several students had to make multiple visits to the store before their basic cell phones became functional.
One morning before class, a peer was discussing how surprised she was by the complexity of the process, to which another classmate replied, “Yeah, when you walk back into the store, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh great, the dumb Americans are back.’”
I had not really been paying attention to their conversation, but the phrase “dumb Americans” struck a nerve, and got me seriously thinking about the way American travelers, especially college students, talk about themselves. Many Americans who have spent time abroad are likely familiar with the language of “dumb Americans,” which I have heard used in many different contexts.
I write today to object to the use of such language on the grounds that more often than not, it perpetuates an inaccurate generalization about Americans abroad and more dangerously, can too easily become a means for explaining or even justifying negative, dangerous behaviors.
Before discussing the key problems with the language described above, it is important to first note that one cannot be blind to the actual behavior of tourists, Americans included. As Doreen Carvajal accurately notes in a New York Times article, the increasingly low cost of international travel and the rise of “selfie sticks and picture-taking drones” have produced toxic consequences in terms of the behavior of tourists.
She writes: “From posing naked at Machu Picchu to filming their dives from hotel balconies into courtyard swimming pools, travelers across the world have been indulging in what officials and travel experts describe as an epidemic of narcissism and recklessness, as they try to turn vacation hubs and historic sites into their personal video and photography props.” The author documents several cases of offensive behaviors, including some perpetrated by Americans. Reasonable attempts by authorities to crack down on such activities, some of which cause permanent damage, are justified in this regard.
But I would also go further and argue that the very way in which we discuss these issues is an essential consideration. One of the most important lessons that my liberal arts education has made clear to me is that discursive choices are powerful because they shape reality. Indeed, numerous examples from history demonstrate that words can be used both as a weapon to disenfranchise and a tool to empower. It is with this understanding in mind that it becomes especially important to think about the way in how we, as young Americans, talk about ourselves while travelling internationally.
In the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to travel to several different countries. Given that many of these opportunities have been school-supported, I often interact with young Americans quite extensively while abroad. Considering these experiences together, my impression of young American travelers sharply contrasts with the oft-invoked rhetoric of “dumb Americans” used, quite ironically, by many of those same students.
In the Galapagos Islands, I spent time with peers curious about exploring a new culture and caring about the protection of the natural environment we collectively enjoyed. In Berlin, I met fellow college students serious about learning German as a means for more wholly understanding the society in which they were living, even if they had no long-term plans to pursue the language. And now, in India, I study with a diverse group of fellow American college students fascinated by issues of development and who are willing to approach hard questions in a critical and culturally-sensitive way. In each of these cases, I have interacted with locals more than interested in opening up to us about life in a certain part of the world, and forgiving of the mistakes that often occur during cross-cultural encounters.
And yet, the rhetoric of “dumb Americans” overwhelms and eventually silences all that we, as young Americans, have to offer. Yes, college students will sometimes make poor decisions while abroad. But so will, and I seriously doubt with any less frequency, any twenty-year old surrounded by other twenty-year olds excited by their new surroundings and thousands of miles away from previous restraints. Further, it seems to be significantly more likely that when students make poor decisions abroad, it is a result of overindulgence at the beachside bar, as the Carvajal piece makes clear. When my friend couldn’t immediately figure out how to activate her Indian cell phone, it had to do with the complicated registration process, not with her being an American.
When one begins to attribute any problem encountered abroad to some sort of American ignorance, one becomes blind to the potential for serious personal growth that these experiences provide. “Dumb Americans” is a convenient but inaccurate way for explaining the friction generated by cultural difference. Further, I fear, that when we allow “dumb Americans” to become a widely-accepted mantra, it’s meaning will shift from that of a description to that of a prescription, providing travelers with an excuse to, or even encouraging them to, misbehave under the guise of their nationality. This is a dangerous but unavoidable self-fulfilling prophecy brought about by the language at play.
My experiences abroad have exposed me to many intelligent, engaged and passionate young Americans who enter foreign countries with much to learn and much to offer. Sometimes they may offend others or make poor choices, but in looking for an explanation for such behaviors, it is important for us, as engaged students and citizens, to look deeper than the oft-repeated but nonsensical description of “dumb Americans.” It does not take much thinking to realize how ignorant a label that truly proves to be.