The United States of America is the greatest country on Earth. God spent five days creating this holy temple of freedom, hastily vomiting the rest of the world out of His celestial mouth in one day like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Most of us are taught some form of this myth growing up under Uncle Sam’s watchful eye. Many Americans, especially those of us kept tucked away in suburban bubbles, see the rest of the world as harboring the world’s ills. Poverty, crime, injustice — these are all reserved for less fortunate nations. For in America, everything is perfect!
Except our plastic cheese, but we’ll let that slide.
With the advancement of social media, that perception is beginning to change. It’s difficult to quantify, but talk about the world with any friends or family who have traveled extensively and you will find a far more nuanced position. The United States or a specific city within it might be the best place for you as an individual, but you will be hard-pressed to find a traveler who sincerely believes the entire world – its citizens, towns and cities – is playing second fiddle to the whole of the United States.
However, that perception of American exceptionalism may be changing among the domestic population, as images from Ferguson of militarized police officers pointing guns at unarmed civilians continue to spread throughout social media and national news.
My experiences are likely no different than others who have placed an importance on traveling the world, especially those who come from communities largely walled off from worldwide ills. We might know they exist, but it’s always someplace other than home.
Luckily my parents never hid me from the world. So although I grew up in a bit of a bubble, where poverty seemed like something you had to strive for rather than circumstances of injustice, it was confusing to me when I started receiving warnings about traveling to countries like India and Thailand in college. Warnings from other Americans who lived in suburban bubbles and never traveled to either country. The perception was that I was instantly in more danger by stepping foot outside the country than had I stayed home.
I certainly will not try to pretend that staying holed up in Oxford, Ohio, my college town, is statistically more dangerous than wandering the streets of Bangkok. But I rarely was given such long speeches about being careful when I traveled to other American cities, such as Chicago or Los Angles, which can be just as dangerous if not more so. Detroit is the exception, but many Americans seem to have disowned the Motor City even though it was largely responsible for supplying our nation with the American Dream in the first place.
Of course I never felt threatened in either India or Thailand. Upon my return, this was greeted by some as a pleasant surprise.
“Nothing happened? Really?”
Considering I spent most my time living on a campus with a large number of resident Buddhist monks, I am not so sure their shock was warranted.
Flip The Script
Now flip the script. Imagine a young traveler from Europe, Asia or Africa is planning a trip to the United States. Perhaps his or her parents find pictures of cops dressed for battle in Ferguson or read stories of law enforcement working against freedom of speech, threatening journalists. They would be warranted to voice some concern about traveling to the United States, would they not?
The United States is more than one community. The bizarre police-state antics of Ferguson should not define the entirety of our nation for foreign travelers. And I do not think I am taking a huge leap of faith when I say we can all agree on that.
So then why do we as Americans define other nations by the international events of one city? Greece has been chaotic in recent memory and I know plenty of Americans have made cracks about visiting Athens. And yes, Athens could be problematic for some; if you show up in the middle of a protest declaring your undying support for the opposite cause.
That idiotic scenario aside, you will most likely be fine. Besides, Greece is more than one city. I hear Thessaloniki is great this or anytime of the year. Oh, and there are those islands that I guess are somewhat famous.
Before this turns into a tourist advertisement for Greece, let me step back to the larger point.
Every nation has its laundry list of issues. We as Americans have long been willing to point out and acknowledge the faults and dangers of countries across the world, giving more credence to the dangers than what may match reality. We then give more weight to hypothetical scenarios we’ve seen on CSI, thus trumping any personal growth we as traveling Americans might gain from the experience of absorbing different cultures. For a nation that prides itself on being a melting pot, we can come off as ironically, awfully afraid of other cultures.
In doing so, we have assumed that our nation is one without faults. We are a spotless canvas. The events of Ferguson, however, show yet again that most certainly is not the case. So perhaps instead of offering snide comments about traveling to other countries, perhaps we should have a moment of self-reflection about life and safety within our own country.
After all, how we can sound the alarm when a friend or family member travels outside the country when young African-Americans have a hard enough time traveling safely within their own country?