With Sang, my Hmong guide in Sa Pa, Vietnam

Talking with Arab-Israeli school children

Talking with Arab-Israeli school children

Most people around the world don’t hate the U.S. and they don’t hate Americans.  There are people around the world who have been adversely affected by the actions of American foreign policy in one way or another or simply have sympathy for people who have been affected by those actions.  But that doesn’t make them bad people and contrary to the information that the nightly news presents, there aren’t millions of people in other countries scheming about ways to do evil to America or Americans abroad.  Certainly there are some, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

While in Cairo in 2004, I encountered many people who were not shy about sharing their less-than-positive sentiments about the U.S. government.  But at the same time, they would qualify their feelings by saying, “I love Americans, but I hate your government.”  Though somewhat shocking to be told how much someone on the opposite side of the world hates the leaders that I democratically elected, meeting and listening to others’ perspectives of the world (and particularly about how my country indirectly impacts their lives), is all part of the learning experience.  It is more enlightening to seek to understand their perspective rather than disqualify it as irrelevant.

Here in northern Vietnam, a place where people could certainly harbor resentment for America and Americans, I find no such animosity.  In fact, had I not known my history, there is nothing here to even suggest that a war raged here some 40 years ago.  Tourism is growing and locals just seem pleased that people around the world desire to visit their country.  It humbles them and boosts their economy.  Strangers say “hello” and are generous.  Where I have been staying in Hanoi, the hospitality has been incredible and genuine; people aren’t kind because they have to be, they’re kind because they want to be.

Because of the small number of Americans who travel abroad for extended periods of time, I sometimes see myself as a sort of a U.S. ambassador – a representative whose goal is not only to experience other lands and cultures for myself, but to quell any judgments others may have about the ways in which we live our lives as Americans and our government’s foreign policy.  It isn’t that I am full of resentment; I just feel that our media and government often portray other countries and people unfairly and judgmentally, and I fear that the same is true from the other side of the camera lens.  Sometimes the only exposure we have to each other’s lives and cultures are through the news, movies, or TV and these aren’t the best mediums for honest living.  I say living because what we see and hear from these sources may be all we ever know about a place we have never experienced or will never become familiar with.  Repeated over and over again, we become conditioned and accept this information as truth and behave accordingly going forward.  Unless we interact with places and people directly, one-on-one, and face-to-face, we may never be able to know what the true reality really is from a civilian point of view.

Long-term travel has taught me many things over the years.  But one thing in particular that it has done is it has quashed my insecurity that an overwhelming number people around the world hold the U.S. in contempt.  Yes, there are governments that paint themselves in a positive light when they are far from perfect.  Yes, there is sometimes propaganda.  In the U.S., perhaps the most treasured right that we cling to is our First Amendment of the Constitution, the freedom of speech.  It is a privilege so righteous and beholden that we see it as protection against the bias and propaganda of government.  But at the same time, the people who are able to speak most freely and loudly in the most convincing way, whether government or other, whose rhetoric either aligns in parallel with our own, are most powerful and influential, whose rhetoric is the most frightening, or a combination of them all, tend to get the most attention.  What they say may be true, or it may not be, but it certainly stirs our imaginations and makes us wonder.  Travel helps to regulate that stirring by incorporating a layer of reality; instead of believing or wondering in our minds what other people think and how they live their lives half a world away, travel better allows us to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears those people and their lives as they truly are.

For many years, I was a bit of a news junkie.  I was like a sponge and read the newspaper, watched the evening news, constantly read news articles online, and listened to NPR on the radio.  But in recent years, the news is barely even news – it’s become provocative drama.  It makes me insecure and scared.  Any small fear or worry I have about the economy, job market, national security, government, and the world in general, are not just reinforced by the news, but exacerbated.  The news makes me believe that the U.S. economy is on the brink of collapse, that society has gone completely mad, that the world outside of the U.S. is a really dangerous place, and that people around the globe hate America.  Last year, as hard as it was for me to do so, I made a conscious decision to stop watching the news and reading jaw-dropping headline news online.  It’s sad, but that gives me peace.

People around the world generally don’t see Americans so differently.  Instead, they see Americans as guests who deserve the same respect and attention they would offer to their families.  They express their kindness through food and hospitality, generosity and smiles.  Even though our government and others among the global community have taken some questionable actions in international policy, I am always so humbled to experience kindness from people, regardless of who I am or where I come from.  That genuine kindness debunks the insecurity of my own ignorance and the biases which the news and other media instill in my psyche.  It helps remind me that most people, regardless of where they are from or who their elected leaders are, are genuinely good human beings.