Happy Independence Day weekend, America! On this 243rd birthday of my home country, I was inspired by a video on Topic.com animating a monologue by Rick Steves titled Leaving America Makes Americans Better.
Rick has been a part of my travel life for many years, from television shows, to his books and fantastic tour app, I have always appreciated his humble yet adventurous style. Hearing his monologue really made me appreciate how far I’ve come in my life, both literally and figuratively, and hope you also take inspiration and appreciate from his words, and maybe a few of my stories here.
“This is my home. I am an American.”
Listening to Rick, this specific line took me to a memory of one particular trip, and certainly my most unique life experience, traveling to Saudi Arabia. For my “real” job, I was one of two Americans invited to support our partner company in Saudi Arabia, and give a presentation and conduct a technical discussion with the Saudi government. There were many amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences as part of that trip, but the moment that stood out for me upon hearing Rick Steves say, “this is my home. I am an American,” was actually getting off of our first flight back to the United States in Frankfurt, Germany of all places. Having spent the previous 5 days in Jeddah and Riyadh, I hadn’t truly realized the culture shock and appreciation of Western culture until returning to it.
While the trip was professionally successful, it also truly taught me how much Western culture and America mean to me personally, and how much I am defined by my own life experiences. After a stressful few days, the sense of relief getting off of the plane, walking to the Lufthansa lounge, and immediately wanting a beer and a hot dog despite it being a little after 7 am was literally my whole body sigh of being reunited with cultural familiarity. Muscles relaxed being “back home” with cultural norms that come naturally for me. My body and mind got to stand down, not having to live with a heightened awareness of my actions, following the cultural immersion training that I had learned prior to this trip. Having a sip of pilsner, and a bite of a pork-based hot dog, both of which were forbidden at my previous destination also brought back a sense of the freedom that I had been so blessed to live with for my entire life up until that previous week.
“There are options to what we see as givens.”
I grew up in a more rural area of Western Pennsylvania not too far from Pittsburgh, and while I was fortunate to be in a family that enjoyed occasional Caribbean cruises, my world view wasn’t overly broad for a number of years. Over time, between travel as well as moving with my wife to very culturally different parts of American, first North Carolina, and later California, I learned to appreciate how much each of us is shaped by the world that we directly experience. There are many people that live their lives in a relatively small, often culturally homogeneous circle. Within those circles, ideas are formed, and “givens” are accepted as part of life. Thoughts are reinforced by the people we interact with, and it is human nature to interact with people who are like us. Be it race, religion, or geography, communities form and are strengthened over time. It is literally human nature to do so.
It isn’t until we force ourselves to move beyond the bounds of our communities that we learn first hand that those “givens” that we accepted as true for our entire lives are actually options and choices that we made, or were made for us by where we were born and the people we’ve had the opportunity to meet.
Moving to North Carolina, my wife’s and my perspective changed as we immersed ourselves in this new culture, and were introduced to people with an entirely different set of “givens”. While the idea of culture is incredibly diverse, food is certainly at or near the top of my list of areas that I like to explore and experience. Even moving 500 miles south, the flavor profile changed dramatically, and my eyes (okay, my mouth and stomach) were opened up to a new world of cuisine. Barbeque sauce was thin, spicy and vinegary, I found out what Brunswick stew was, and a host of new culinary areas were introduced to me.
Being fortunate enough to be in the Raleigh-Durham area, while experiencing Southern food, the high level of culture of the area also piqued our interest and raised an awareness of many other types of cuisine. Back in Pennsylvania, we had our wedding rehearsal dinner at the local Asian restaurant, featuring foods from at least four different countries. It wasn’t as bad as Matthew Inman of TheOatmeal.com says, but his idea is 100% factual.
In North Carolina, we found “our” sushi restaurant, and loved their buy-one-get-one rolls. Hey, I was a grad student at the time. It wasn’t until we moved to the Bay Area in California that we had sushi again, and had a “oh my God, that’s what it’s supposed to taste like?” moment. Coincidentally, we had the same experience with red wine moving to California. We had continually adjusted and learned new sets of “givens”, and learned through food how many things were accepted as truths, but in reality were just options that we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see the rest of the multiple choice question that is life.
There really is something to the standard mother’s advice of “you have to try it once, you might like it.” Cultures, ideas, and geography completely fall into that guidance, not just food. You truly don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never allowed yourself to open up and take a bite of a new part of the world.
The best souvenir is getting a “broader perspective and implementing it”
Rick goes on to say that being a good citizen is learning and experiencing other cultures, and then taking those experiences and sharing it with those around you. I am not one for physical souvenirs, but collecting ideas and experiences, and an appreciation for how other people live is a defining collection that I am very proud of. I view the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” not as assimilation to the local culture, but as an immersion. Let yourself experience your location and the people as much as possible during your visit. I work very hard during my trips to behave as a traveler, not a tourist. Appreciate, seek to understand, and try it!
One of my other favorite destinations that I’ve had the chance to experience on my own would be Buenos Aires. If you know me personally, you know that I’m a listener and observer first, then a doer. With Rick Steves as my guide (literally, download his app!), I had the chance to explore Argentina’s biggest city on my own, try their food, and observe and interact with the people. While I speak some Spanish, it was a challenge and definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone to explore street markets, try different restaurants, and experience a city in a few days after work. One afternoon, I met a co-worker at a local bar in a non-touristy part of town, and we passed several hours over a few Quilmes (Argentinian beer), just watching the people pass by, seeing the children play at a local park with a carousel, and just go on about their day before everything gradually closed up for the time before dinner.
On one of our less adventurous nights, we went to a restaurant that definitely combined Argentine and American cultures, the Heisenburger Burger Lab in Palermo. This was back near the peak of Breaking Bad’s popularity, though the restaurant is still open today. Since we were working early and it was a weeknight, we joined the early birds as two of the first five people in the restaurant at 9 PM; an early dinner in Buenos Aires. By the time we left a little before 11 pm, folks were lined up out the door. During that time, we talked, and being overheard speaking English, we were definitely chatted up by a number of locals, and we immediately were transformed into cultural ambassadors for America in this restaurant based on a US television show, more than 5,000 miles from home.
The reverse is also true, as Rick indicates, bringing your souvenir of cultural experience home is a tremendous gift to those who haven’t had the chance to experience the same things as you. Going back to my Saudi Arabia trip, my family asked me so many questions when I got home. The most common question I got was “were you afraid?” I responded that the hospitality was amazing, and everywhere I went, we were treated extremely well, always being offered tea and refreshments. Honestly, I have been much more concerned for my safety on trips in Mexico, and I’ve been there 10+ times.
One morning, my coworker and I took a walk from our Jeddah hotel along the coast of the Red Sea, ending at a Starbucks coffee. While Argentina gave me a glimpse at cultural exchange and interest in American culture, Jeddah was an experience unto itself, with western brands juxtaposed against a traditional Middle Eastern and very different cultural backdrop than I had ever experienced before. It was definitely strange seeing an Arabic KFC, and a Cheesecake Factory with both a men’s and family entrance. Men may not eat near women or families when they are not with their own family, so as I was on a business trip with another gentleman, I’ve never spent so long in my life with zero interaction with a woman.
“Share a meal and have a conversation with someone of a different religion, living under a different government, that lives on the other side of the planet”
While the cultural differences were huge, it was a great place with amazing people. Well, great and interesting men as I wasn’t allowed to interact with any women. I had some tremendous conversations with our host in Jeddah as well as with his employees, and gained respect and appreciation for their culture. One of the more memorable conversations over lunch ended up on the topic of politics and al-Qaeda, and a very young Trump campaign for president back in October 2015. Our host was aware of then candidate Trump, and was interested in America’s perspective, which I will leave any of my commentary on that topic out of this article in hopes of maintaining a diverse clientele base 🙂
Amazingly, we discussed what it was like in Saudi Arabia after 9/11, and his opinions of al-Qaeda and even Osama bin Laden. Much like in the US, extremist views do exist, but my host’s perspective was that the general population and “real” Muslims are against what they are doing, what they represent, and he was genuinely upset by how “they make us look bad to the world.” He was certainly a wealthy, well-connected businessman, but I was completely shocked when he said that he knew the bin Laden family, and that there was “no way Osama could have done 9/11 on his own because he was an idiot.” Again, it was unbelievable to hear first hand the thoughts and emotions from a man in a region that I never honestly expected to visit in my life. Most importantly, I felt great as an ambassador, to bring that experience back home to share with my friends and family. Like much of America, extremists do exist, but they do not speak for the masses. They may yell over the masses, and they may seek to subdue the voices of others that disagree with their views, but the significant majority of the world, even in a place that is as culturally different than the US as possible, are inherently good, kind, generous, and proud of where they come from.
“Travel. Celebrate diversity rather than be afraid of it”
Upon our successful meeting with the Saudi government, our host proudly gave us a personal guided tour of old town Jeddah, and demonstrated his extreme pride for his hometown, and the origin of his story that had led to tremendous business success. Just like I am proud of where I come from, and despite now living 2500 miles from there, it will always be a part of me. It truly was an amazing experience to spend time in Saudi Arabia. But what it highlighted to me was that everywhere in the world, people are formed and shaped by their experiences, and there is pride in each individual’s origin. It is only in seeing the rest of the world and experiencing other cultures that one can appreciate the uniqueness of our own culture and personal experience, and celebrate the diversity that is our world.
“We’re all in this together. We can have empathy for other people.”
Happy Independence Day, America. Now go see the rest of the world, but be sure to bring back your souvenirs.
Thanks for reading!