When people ask me what it’s like to be an American traveling abroad, I tell them the honest truth:
It’s pretty unexciting.
That is, I’ve never had a confrontational experience being an American while traveling abroad.
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Maybe it’s been dumb luck. Maybe I assume more people will be angry at the United States for its foreign policy or what the country represents to some parts of the world. Maybe there’s simply an abundance of really good people no matter where you go — people who see a human being as human more than national citizenship.
The latter is what I’d put my money on because everywhere I’ve gone I’ve had lovely experiences with diverse, unique people. Not one has “hated” me, or confronted me, for being from the U.S.
In fact, the only two “near-dangerous” moments I’ve had while traveling both happened in America.
They coincidentally happened 4 years, and a few blocks away, from one another in Waikiki, Hawaii.
Here’s what happened in one of those instances in January 2009, and how language saved me from getting beaten up in a bar room bathroom.
I’m washing my hands in a white ceramic sink under a broken fluorescent light.
I’ve flown over 5,000 miles on 3 flights today beginning in Washington D.C. and ending in Oahu, Hawaii. This dodgy men’s bathroom can barely hold two people. The walls are covered in Sharpie, graffiti and skater-surfer bumper stickers.
I can’t believe this is my first impression of Hawaii. But she wanted to take me here, and after all, I’m visiting Hawaii because of her.
There’s no door on the toilet stall. I look over and the Hawaiian man in his 20s with a Bick-ed clean head in a sleeveless black tee with tattoos exposed leans back just slightly to speak. He has heavy lids, bloodshot eyes. Both hands hold himself as he urinates.
“Where you from, brah?” he asks through a raspy throat.
“Uh, from near Boston, East Coast,” I say with enthusiasm, as if my tone may disarm him.
“I was afraid you was gonna say that, brah.”
Even before those ominous words, I knew what his question meant. It was not a good sign. I was called out for being an out-of-town tourist — some kid from the mainland, an outsider, in a bar for locals on the edge of touristic Waikiki.
If you aren’t too familiar with Hawaiian history, you may not know that American mainlanders aren’t entirely beloved by all locals. It may sound shocking. We’re all Americans, aren’t we? But, not really. Hawaiian culture is as storied and proud as its long history, long before America came around: from the first settlers of Hawaii who canoed across the Pacific ocean, to generations of great kings and queens who were buried into the face of mountains, to a deep and steady tradition of family-first communities.
These days, corporate hotel chains and restaurants are symbolic of the cultural crimes made against ancient and authentic Hawaii.
The absolutely reverent land, godly and divine in its own right, has become scarred with cement, pollution and mini malls. Tourism dollars are great, but influence and wealth have been gobbled up by outsider businesses, not the locals.
Locals have been pushed out of homes and communities.
Sacred land has been turned into a honeymooner’s playground.
Adding insult to injury? So few tourists who visit even know it enough to care.
By chance, I, an outsider, white boy in blue jeans standing and washing his hands in the sink, has become the image of the very colonist who has showed up to claim Hawaii as his own.
Luckily for me, I’m armed with the slightest awareness for this history, having researched and read up before visiting.
That’s why I understand a question like, “Where you from?” is a bad sign before I give any answer.
What would otherwise be my ignorance is replaced by empathy. And the truth is, I can’t even blame the kid for hating me. I’m on his turf. People who look like me and act like me have been stomping on his home — deliberately, or without the slightest awareness — for generations.
I would probably hate me too. I get it.
So, I rely on the only thing that I have — my words — to hopefully relate just enough to disarm him.
Before I know what I’m saying, I blurt out, “I know, man,” with an air of apology, “I’m a mainlander. I just got here to visit my friend, she’s Kama’aina,” or, a local, I say. “She lives on Kapahulu and Kaimuki,” referencing her address, trying to show that I know the local side of Waikiki, not just the touristic sections.
I keep going:
“I’m just here to learn the culture and history of the Hawaiian people some more,” I add, “I already love it here.”
Yeah, that last bit was desperate. But, it was honest. And, it was a total stab in the dark — not much of a defense. I just wanted to level with the kid that I might have more in common with him he might have assumed.
Turns out, it worked.
He nods his head a few times as he zips up, and hugs the wall as he heads for the door behind me.
“I like you, brah,” he says.
“If anyone here gives you a problem, you let me know.”
The door closes behind him.
And my first thought is, “He didn’t wash his hands.”
The Language of Caring
Of the fast few sentences I spouted off to diffuse a possible confrontation in that dive bar bathroom, there was one word in particular that probably said more for me than any other explanation or buttering-up could have.
It was the only Hawaiian word I knew besides aloha, or love: kama’aina.
Kama’aina literally means “child of the land,” and it refers to a Hawaiian who is local by birthright or having officially moved to Hawaii long enough to be considered local by the government. Kama’aina in Hawaii are eligible to receive a state-issued identification card that proves their locality, and even provides some discounts on goods and services to the local population so that the tentacles of tourism don’t adversely affect their pocketbooks.
Luckily for me, my lady-interest who lived in Hawaii taught me what this word meant before I arrived in Hawaii.
And I’m pretty sure that that one word said something more that anything else I said. It stated that I cared enough to know what it meant.
Caring enough to learn a term, a phrase, a greeting or manners like “Please” and “Thank You” ultimately says more than how well you pronounce it.
It shows that you care.
And caring can’t be overstated:
Caring shows that you’re open, that you’re human, that you’re willing to try, and even embarrass or humble yourself — all because you have a heart and you want to relate.
I’ve traveled to 19 countries since 2013, and if my experiences abroad say anything, it turns out that it’s pretty easy and safe to be an American traveling abroad.
But maybe it’s no coincidence that I’ve had great luck abroad as an American because I adopt the language of caring wherever I go. I learn and try to use even a few words or phrases in local speak.
It’s not because they may save me from a confrontation, or because I want to pretend I’m someone I’m not.
It’s because there’s no better way to express that you care about human beings than by offering an expression of relation to their identity, their history and their culture through their language.
In India, namaste is a greeting of hello and goodbye — a gesture of ,”the light in me which sees and honors the light in you.”. In Turkey, the way to say thank you is teşekkür. In Bosnia and Slovenia, you give thanks with hvala. In Iceland, you say takk for your cappuccino. In Costa Rica, greetings and connections come in the sound of pura vida, or, “Pure life.”
I’ve learned firsthand that learning the language of a local populace isn’t just a matter of kind manners, it’s a showing of care for the people, their culture and their history.
As a traveler, I love that. I think it’s beautiful.
And, I know it’s good for me, too. There’s no surer way to learn and understand humans than to flatten your own ego and humbly offer:
“I may not understand everything about you, but I see you, and because I see you I respect you, and because I respect you I would like to learn more about you.”
Maybe that doesn’t sound tough.
Maybe it doesn’t sound righteous, or powerful, or masculine, or sexy.
But I know it’s enough to diffuse a conflict that doesn’t need to happen.
I know it turns sudden-enemies into sudden-pals.
I know that words — and caring — are enough to help humans see eye to eye with one another, in a world that feels like it is begging them to fight and hate.
Me, I choose the language of caring.
As far as you and I are concerned, it’s up to us to choose our words wisely, and to direct our energy as we see fit.
It’s never as easy as black or white, but when it comes to what we choose and how we desire to live, the options seem clear:
Loving, or fearful.
Together, or apart.
United, or walled off.
Caring, or indifferent.
Me, I’ve learned that caring isn’t just how to avoid a confrontation in a bar room bathroom. It’s how you learn to communicate with people. It’s why they open up to you. It’s how you make new friends, new loves, and cultivate positive memories from 19 countries and counting.
As an American — as a human — that’s the stuff I want to share, and represent, in the world.