When my husband and I were in college, we had the great fortune of being able to study abroad together. Being United States citizens, we took great care to try to keep a low profile and not live up to the Ugly American stereotype of being loud, abrasive, pushy, and demanding. We immersed ourselves in local culture, language, and food, and tried very hard to become a part of the community we lived in.
Former President George W. Bush was the leader of the country at the time, and the U.S. was in the midst of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I mention this because news about the U.S. was almost always on the front page of the local papers. Many people we met had their opinions about it, but most kept away from discussing U.S. politics with us outright. Except…
We were on a weekend holiday in Germany (which was not our host country), eating and drinking at a very famous and historic beer hall in München. Again, we tried to keep a low profile and not make a ruckus. The tables at this place were quite long, with benches on each side, and you don’t get your own table. You just find a spot big enough and squeeze in, and if there is room at your table you should expect that another group will sit down with you. It was really a great way to meet different people, since anyone from anywhere might plop down next to you for a pint and a weinerschniztel.
One particular time we went to this hall a family from X Country sat with us, a middle-aged couple and their 12-year-old son. I wasn’t sure why they brought such a young boy to a beer hall, but I figured maybe that’s just a cultural thing and it’s okay to go to these kinds of places younger than we do in America. We introduce ourselves and start talking, and after about 10 minutes they offer us some “snuff” (or sniffing tobacco), to have… which we gently refuse, although their son has some. Again, I thought he was a little young for that kind of thing, but chalked it up to cultural differences.
As with many cross-cultural conversations, we get around to “where are you from?” I speak with the wife for a good while about my trip through X Country a few years back: how lovely the countryside was, the cities we visited, how nice the people were to us, etc. Complimentary statements, basically. She agrees that it really is lovely, and talks a bit about the places we have mutually visited there, and gives me some insider historical knowledge about them. Then she asks where I am from, and I indicate a few hours from New York, in the suburbs.
She then goes on to tell me that she never had wanted to go to America, but her family finally convinced her and they took a trip from New York to Boston last summer. The next twenty minutes was a lecture on all the things that are wrong with the United States: what a shame it is we had such bad poverty when we are so rich, all the problems with our country, government, policies, and President, the wars that the country was in, how ugly some of the cities they stayed in were, among other things. I didn’t even know what to say; I had just talked about how wonderful a time I had in X Country, (leaving out the parts I wasn’t so impressed with) and in return she didn’t say one complimentary thing about my homeland except that the Boston brownstones were nice. Then the husband (and even the boy, at times) starts in on his opinions and our group just sits there, dumbfounded, for the next half hour.
I don’t know what possessed them to think that it was acceptable to speak that way about another person’s entire country to their face (especially after one visit!). Regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed, I couldn’t help but feel offended that these people had been to the U.S. all but once, and seemed to think that long lecture and an in-depth critique was appropriate. I certainly didn’t invite political debate into a conversation about travel, and everyone else at the table was very uncomfortable. Eventually I said I was sorry they had such a poor time and dropped the subject. We left pretty soon thereafter.
I understand that this is a beer hall, and not the best place to find polite conversation, but this wasn’t the first or last time we had unsolicited advice about our home during our stay. Just the most memorable one. 0131-11