Normally, we don’t think of traveling abroad as a way of representing our home internationally. Still, this is very much the case. Whether you like it or not, when you’re abroad, people will judge you based on your home and your home based on you. In this way, we are all informal ambassadors for our homes abroad, not only representing ourselves but also where we come from.
Acting as Ambassadors for our Homes
With that in mind, thoughtful international travelers watch their speech and their actions in order to be respectful of the country they’re visiting and to be a good representative of their home country. I don’t mean that we should always tread on eggshells and never controversial subjects. In fact, the more controversial or sensitive topics actually tend to come up quite often. However, how I approach these subjects first is a little cautious. For example, I would never bring up Nazi Germany to a random German I’ve just met. Instead, I wait for them to bring up the topic (if ever, though again, it happens a lot) to discuss and share my views.
Representing home abroad doesn’t just mean being respectful and generally a good example. It also means knowing a lot about your home as well, and being able to express it well. Most people know something about where you’re from, but it might not be that accurate or complete. Being able to fill them in will show them that you understand your home well, and people respect that. For example, most non-Americans have a pretty strong opinion with regard to the US, whether we like it or not. However, sometimes, their information usually isn’t the most complete or sophisticated (though sometimes it certainly is, there’s a lot of people out there really into American politics, history, and culture).
To counter this, being well-read and knowledgeable about American history, current events, politics (ugh, yes) and culture will help you help them understand the US better. This kind of varied knowledge and experience will enable you to show them your perspective. With that, they can understand you better, and in turn, the US a bit more. I don’t mean to say that we all should have bachelor’s degrees in American History. However, a little extra information goes a long way to jumpstarting conversations and interaction. The more well-informed we are, the better we are at acting as ambassadors for our homes.
Travel is a catalyst for learning
I think there’s a sort of positive feedback loop of cultural exchange that comes with international travel. Of course, traveling abroad you get exposed to other cultures and peoples. I’d also argue that traveling (and living) abroad makes us more curious about our own homes. Through these discussions, we share our perspectives and opinions about each other’s homes. It’s just a common topic of discussion. Usually, following the exchange of names, comes: “Where are you from?”, right? Naturally, this is then followed by sharing stories and experiences with something related to each other’s homes.
After many of these discussions, I’ve often felt that I needed to know more about Chicago and the US in order to better represent them. I haven’t taken any formal steps to resolve this, like registering for a course or seeking out relevant books. Instead, I’ve just become generally more curious about my home’s history and culture. This change was partly conscious as an effort to learn more. On the other hand, it was somewhat unconscious in that I think I’m just more likely to search out educational and informational content online. I suppose that most of this newfound will for learning is mostly curiosity. But I’d also like to believe that I’m becoming a better ambassador for the US in the process.
Don’t sweat it
To close this post, I’d like to remind us all to not take it too seriously. I think I made it sound a bit too serious up there because this topic means a lot to me. I think that far too few people realize that we’re all ambassadors for our homes when traveling abroad. However, that doesn’t mean that I think everyone I see is a bad representative of their homes. Quite the opposite in fact. I think most people do a fine job as informal ambassadors when they’re traveling abroad. Of course, like I discussed in Encountering Other Americans Abroad, there are some bad examples out there who tend to poison the water a bit. Combine them with hyper-stereotyped images of people from other countries, and you’ve got a recipe for an unhealthy perception of other peoples.
That is why we need to remind ourselves that we’re representing our homes too when we travel abroad. A little extra friendliness, openness, and understanding can really make the difference and shatter stereotypes.
Let me know what you think below in the comments. I read every comment I get on the website, and I reply to almost all of them as well! So, do you think people recognize the idea of representing more than themselves when traveling abroad? Do you think there are other easy ways we can become better ambassadors for our homes?