I have been enjoying Facebook pictures from GHS alum Shelby Faulkner, now agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Ridgemont High School, as she spends a month in Malaysia on a study tour designed to develop globally-minded agriculture educators.
She and fellow group members are visiting schools and fields, cooking with locally-grown ingredients, meeting dozens of like-minded young people. Shelby is the best kind of representative of the United States: bright, positive, engaged and engaging, respectful. Those she encounters will remember her: “So THAT is what Americans are like!”
In stark contrast, I recall another American years ago in a Munich hotel where my students and I were staying. The man’s voice grew loud and his manner belligerent as he castigated the desk clerk, bellowing that the hotel needed to hire someone who spoke decent English. He was the worst kind of representative of the United States: ignorant, negative, egotistical, disrespectful. People who witnessed his outburst that day were sure to remember him: “So THAT is what Americans are like!”
In this summer season, lots of us are out-and-about at home and abroad, all of us representing our communities and our country. Long in the travel “business” for myself and others, I progressed from mere tourist engaged in passive sightseeing to true traveler searching for authentic experiences with just-plain-folks.
Along the way it dawned upon me, as I herded teenagers through Europe, what it meant to be temporary guests in someone else’s home country. I always found it best to follow something of a golden rule for travelers: As visitors, we should behave as we would want visitors in our country to act. Obviously, then, we should avoid loud, rude, arrogant behavior – even after an exhausting day or disappointment with scaffolding covering the very site we came to visit.
Although most of us consider our vacations an annual opportunity to cast aside hum-drum for carefree days, a little preparation can actually enhance our experiences.
We Americans often assume – perhaps even expect – that our “universal” English will be understood anywhere in the world. And yet, learning a few foreign phrases can reap unexpected benefits. In the early 70’s a GHS colleague and I
crisscrossed Europe by train. Whenever we entered a new country, we consulted our dog-eared copy of Europe on $5 a Day to figure out the monetary system, in those pre-Euro days, and the words for “yes, no, please, thank you – and where’s the bathroom” in French or Italian. It really helped, as did my original, woefully- deficient language skills when I was alone on a streetcar and irrevocably lost. A bevy of German ladies inexplicably complimented me on my error-laden German and took me under their collective wings until I reached my destination.
Traveling with picky teenage eaters, I warned that those needing a daily Big Mac fix might just as well stay home. And I counseled them to at least try every food their hosts served, smile, and say “interessant,” regardless of the taste. After all, their own mothers would soon be cooking “American” for their exchange partners.
In keeping with the turn-about-is-fair-play nature of this special traveler’s guideline, I also urged the kids be observant about local customs. Setting down bulky luggage in the middle of a city sidewalk, while Germans hustled through their morning rush hour, showed a certain thoughtlessness we can smile about now.
Unfortunately, however, I observed egregious examples of blatant insensitivity, especially near landmarks held in great esteem by local citizens. Although I was always proud of my students’ comportment during visits to Holocaust memorials and former concentration camps, I saw far too many tourist-types crawling all over significant monuments to pose for silly photographs. How would we Americans feel about foreign visitors using the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a mere backdrop for stupid Facebook postings? And do not get me started on people – often misguided Americans – who deface nature’s handiwork in our own national parks.
Finally, nowadays when everyone feels the need to regularly comment on everyone else, we must take great care to heed the traveler’s golden rule. It is our place to observe customs and attitudes wherever we visit. It is not our place to judge and criticize. My students disliked paying to use public restrooms or for extra catsup packets at German fast-food spots. So what? I am a go-with-the flow kind of gal in such trivial situations – and it IS their country.
But there is absolutely no room for intolerant and judgmental attitudes about culture, history, and especially religion. It was encouraging to read Shelby’s post: “Harmony Street…was a beautiful place to expand my understanding of different faiths. At each religious space, we were welcomed in with no hesitations.” That is the kind of global cooperation – mutual recognition of other beliefs and ways of life – so sorely needed in today’s increasingly-splintered world.
So, to all travelers: those desiring relaxation or seeking adventure, those fulfilling business responsibilities, from students backpacking far from home and those on organized sightseeing tours to presidents and prime ministers involved in state visits – let us be the type of guests we wish to welcome into our own home country. In the process of enlightened traveling, we may even come to French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s conclusion: “Travel makes one modest…when we see what a tiny place we occupy in the world.”
Wishing everyone safe – and golden – travels!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.