If you are sitting in the USA, wanting to become an expat at some exciting location, and you are wondering if you will be safe and not harassed, there are very few places that you need to take off the list of possible destinations for fear of encountering a high degree of Anti-American sentiment. The nations to avoid are the ones where the USA has caused great harm in the last few years, but I don’t think a sane and rational person would want to migrate to say Afghanistan or Iraq right now.
Susan Beverley, Jamie Douglas and Julie R Butler are writers, world travelers, nomadic retirees and expats and they each share their own experience on the level of anti American sentiment they have encountered or witnessed during the course of their travels and during the years they have lived overseas.
In my extensive travels I have only once come across hostilities directed at Americans, and that was in El Salvador in the mid 1990’s, when after a hair raising drive trough San Salvador and off into the darkness of the country side, with unlit oxcarts all over the road, we arrived in the little town of San Vincente, where we were taken in by the owners of an old hotel through bomb proof doors. We had New Mexico license plates at the time, and everybody assumed we were Mexicans, but I guess we did not fool everyone, because as we prepared to leave in the morning, the Innkeeper warned us to get right out of town, and as we left the hotel, we saw why. During the night someone painted on the whitewashed wall outside “Todos Gringos Fuera de San Vincente,” which means, All Gringos out of San Vincente. It was the blood red paint that impressed me. We left!
Compare that to arriving in Ocotal, in the mountains of Nicaragua, when we sat on the curb late into the night with the locals, drinking Beer, Vodka and Flór de Caña rum into the wee hours, and it seems half the town came out to see us, to assure us that we were safe, because they had nothing against Americans, as it was our messed up government against their messed up government. We made many friends for life that night, and in spite of the mass consumption of alcohol, not a single hostility was expressed toward us.
In our travels during the Bush administration, many people in Europe and Australasia shyly asked us just what in the hell was wrong with the American people, having voted into the highest office a man who was obviously an incompetent warmonger, what with starting the war in Iraq under such falsehoods. Even school children in Moorea, French Polynesia, as well as many of our new found friends in Australia were quietly asking us what had happened to the formerly greatest nation on earth. The same happened to us in Europe as well, and the only answer we could give them was that he was not really elected by the people, but rather through a coup d’état by the supreme court of the USA.
Americans in particular tend to be more visible because of the way they dress and conduct themselves in public, but very rarely have I seen anyone harassed because of their being from the USA. Should you get in a sticky situation, just claim to be Canadian, eh?
Being a US citizen abroad does mean that you have an image problem to overcome. The preconceived notion is that people from the US are disrespectful and demanding. They are not only sadly uninformed about the world, but they seem to believe that their own culture is superior and therefore are not all that interested in digging into the subtleties of other cultures. They are spoiled by having come from a place where they can get anything they want and they get cranky when things are not the way they think they should be.
We all know that this is a gross generalization, that these characteristics are not inherent to every US citizen. However, the impressions persists, not in the least because so many have spent so little time outside of the country, and those who do so often don’t try very hard to speak other languages or to learn why certain cultural traits that seem to be “backward” or “inferior” are really just different and possibly even serve a social purpose that is hidden to those who don’t bother to look for it.
The truth is that there is a loud and very visible faction in United States that exudes exceptionalism, isolationism, and xenophobia – and any world citizen who looks at the news can see how fear and loathing of Mexicans, Islam, Socialism, and other such “enemies of the state” has taken hold of the country.
Statistics show that small percentages of US citizens travel abroad in comparison with other countries such as Canada, the UK, and even Australia (where, due to geography, travel abroad presents far greater barriers). And this cultural trait, this global incuriosity, plays a large part in causing many people in the US to demonize other people and ideas that are much more complex and nuanced than they are given credit for.
The antidote to this problem is for more US citizens to get out into the world, really dig into other cultures and political systems, and conduct their own citizen diplomacy abroad.
During many years spent in Latin America as a US citizen, my own experience has been that people who harbor anti-US sentiments rarely express them overtly. They are much more likely to express themselves in the form of the cold shoulder, the bureaucratic run-around, the infamous “gringo tax,” and other passive-aggressive tactics. It is up to me learn how to not be taken advantage of, but more importantly, to not take any of this personally.
And it is up to us to redefine our image. If we isolate ourselves in an expat community, don’t try to learn the language, and only import our lives from home into the new country instead of engaging with the locals and being open to them, then the locals will have no reason to believe anything other than the preconceived generalizations. And if we are in a country that has historically had a difficult relationship with the United States, which is pretty much all of Latin America, then it is even more crucial to engage with the culture that we have chosen to live in, to take the initiative and reach out to people in the community, to empathize, to vanquish the fear of what others may think of us, and to show that we all need to take it upon ourselves to look beyond generalizations and see each other as the unique individuals that we are.
I am not an American, but British, however this, in the minds of many people I have met overseas, amounts to much the same thing. With that said I am happy to report that I personally have encountered almost zero hostility from any national whose country I happened to be in.
Have I witnessed any angry exchanges or overt negative behavior directed towards Americans? Absolutely yes, but to be honest I would, without reservation, side with the non-American in nearly all of the situations. This is because the American on the receiving end of the hostility was behaving in a manner in which, quite frankly, he or she deserved to be treated disrespectfully. It is sadly not uncommon to see Americans yelling in English at Spanish speaking store keepers while waving their arms around getting increasingly frustrated that the person behind the counter is not understanding their request for A1 Steak Sauce. Now stop and think for a moment … who is in the wrong? Is it the store keeper for not speaking English or the American in Argentina who has not bothered to learn how to speak Spanish or cannot accept that a small corner grocery store keeper has never ever heard of “Ah-Uno Salsa de Steak”? The same store keeper interacting with a different American who is behaving more modestly is a different scenario altogether. A polite exchange with some interjection of humor is often observed leading me to the conclusion that there is no serious undercurrent of Anti -American sentiment, merely the existence of a normal human negative reaction to being yelled at.
I decided to ask some other Americans for their experiences and this is what they told me:
Deborah originally from California: “I lived abroad for 9 years. During the Bush Administration, I encountered hostility toward Americans in Greece, where people were clearly VERY anti-American and vocal about saying so, among many people who didn’t know me personally. I haven’t been back since so I don’t know. Everywhere I went abroad, people were appalled at our seemingly stupid and needless invasion and destruction of Iraq. The US lost a lot of friends during that time. I lived in Armenia at the time and don’t think there was antipathy toward Americans, just a sense of disbelief and also worry (which exists today) that we will take military action against Iran, Armenia’s only friend in the region. In Italy, where I lived from 2006 to 2009, I also encountered hostility among people who didn’t know me, especially among government officials who taunted me about Bush. I don’t think that Italians are particularly anti-American but in most places, people are disgusted with Americans who behave in a superior, loud or obnoxious manner, don’t bother to try to speak the language and expect things to be exactly as they are in the US. I saw this a lot among visitors to Italy.”
Doug, originally from Texas: “Neither my wife nor I have experienced any anti- Americanism in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. In El Salvador in particular there is a very strong LIKE for all things American and Americans in general. It is definitely an advantage being an American in El Salvador and Guatemala in many ways. People are VERY interested in us, where we come from and why we are here. Especially since we came from California which is everyone’s dream state here in El Salvador.”
Jamie, originally from Colorado: “I was in Germany just after George W Bush made his famous axis of evil speech. Many Germans were not pleased that I was an American, and wanted me to justify my than president’s actions.”
And finally Michael originally from New York: “I’d have to say that, for some reason, as someone who is ethnically Korean I have not faced much anti-American sentiment – despite people knowing that I am a US citizen. Somehow, I seem to be able to escape most of these problems, especially in Asia where I speak Chinese and Korean and can get by.
However, while I was attending an international masters program with 7 French engineers, I constantly faced criticism about being an American. I expected criticism to be about things like the war in Iraq, but actually most of the things were little day to day things:
“Oh Michael, you are so American – all you think about is money.”
I have not faced any serious or violent discrimination as an American abroad. I do think that my being ethnically Korean has been a large part of this, as I know that many of my Caucasian friends abroad do experience much more trouble abroad.”
Do you disagree with our answers? Do you have other options or opinions to share with our readers? What has been your experience? Please leave a comment.
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About the authors: Susan Beverley is a writer and editor for Escape From America Magazine and also writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – the expat news blog for EscapeArtist.com. She traveled extensively before becoming an expat herself having found a place to call home in South America where she has lived since 2005. She understands the concerns, needs and difficulties that expats face from first-hand experience and is dedicated to supporting and encouraging anyone who is looking for a new nation to call home. [ send her an email ]
Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. To contact him for assignments and new adventures, email: jamie.douglas [at] yahoo.com
Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, freelance writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info).
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