Comfort zone won’t better tourist image

It was a perfect late summer afternoon in the London Docklands. I was perched atop an ornate marble bench with an issue of TIME Europe splayed across my lap. A few wispy clouds dotted the

It was a perfect late summer afternoon in the London Docklands. I was perched atop an ornate marble bench with an issue of TIME Europe splayed across my lap. A few wispy clouds dotted the azure sky above. A Romanesque water fountain
bubbled and frothed in front of me, and beyond, was a magnificent view of the River Thames.

I sat contentedly, sipping iced coffee and chatting with a well-dressed British stranger. “You don’t exactly have an American flag tattooed on your forehead,” he said quizzically after
I had finished criticizing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Caught off guard by his comment, I wondered what exactly his idea of the stereotypical American was. Had he expected me to tramp around in white sneakers and faded jeans, sporting a Yankees baseball cap along with an arrogant, cavalier attitude that Americans are now so infamously known for?

Then I remembered that this was London.

I had chosen to study abroad in an international mecca for political and social liberals. Here, President Bush’s born-again evangelicalism is met with cold disdain. Here, homosexuality
is openly embraced. And environmentalism is an essential way of life.

Still, in spite of London’s ultra-leftist pulse, I encountered virtually none of the anti-American sentiment I had been warned about. Granted, our government is widely and bitterly despised. But what about our people? Surprisingly, we are not as hated as we have been led to believe. Instead, I found that we, as American citizens, are mostly pitied for our government’s inexperienced doggedness when it comes to international relations.

My newfound acquaintance agreed with my theory. “I suppose that since the U.S. is still such a young country, we shouldn’t be so shocked that it is making the same foreign policy mistakes that we, in Old World Europe, were making centuries ago,” he said.

The British have a much more evolved approach to foreign policy than Americans. Their international astuteness is thousands of years in the making. Europe and Britain have a history that we just cannot compete with. Unlike Americans, they have already made their mistakes and learned from them.

In London for instance, you can go to The British Museum
and lay eyes on the Rosetta Stone. The exhibit is a priceless reminder of the injustices of British imperialism in Egypt.

Somehow, the M*A*S*H exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., seems a bit superfluous in comparison.

Thus, Europe and Britain’s animosity toward the United States is unsurprising and possibly even well-deserved. After all, the Bush administration is not exactly known for making smart foreign policy decisions. But there is an important distinction to make between animosity toward our government and animosity toward us.

And yet, less than 20 percent of American citizens own passports and bother to travel outside of the United States. At about 1 percent, the amount of American college students who choose to study abroad is even bleaker. No wonder the world has such a homogenized, stereotypical image of Americans. How can we combat these stereotypes? By getting
off our butts and experiencing life outside the United States. You may encounter a sneer or two, but so what?. The experience is well worth it.

So, travel abroad. Interact with locals. Step outside your comfort zone. And for Pete’s sake, don’t wear faded jeans and a Yankees cap.

Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at

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