Blending in while abroad

When traveling abroad people will notice your “American-ness,” regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The simple fact is that this country leaves an indelible mark on you, from your sense of style, actions, mannerisms or political viewpoint that will be “tells” indicating your foreignness.

In no way am I trying to attack individuality, it has just been my experience that there are some things that stick out in me that indicate I am from the U.S. I have had the unique opportunity to travel to 18 different countries. My mother is Mexican-American and my father is Afro-Jamaican. I always thought that my racial ambiguity would be a sort of shield in traversing the globe; believing it protected me from American stereotypes, which can cause challenges or misunderstandings. In many respects, this has been the case. For instance, it is much easier for me to walk down the streets of Kingston, Jamaica as a “brown” male, regardless of my heritage, when compared to a “white” female.

However, this has not always been the case. One instance in particular, while traveling on a crowded bus through the Andes, let me know just how telling my “Americaness” was. I am very self-conscious about my Spanish; it is not very good and my accent is very noticeably American. As a result, I try never to speak too loudly in public settings, and limit how much I say so I don’t stand out. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I could easily be mistaken as a resident of any number of countries in the region. However,  in this instance, I was called out by one of the traveling salesman that hop on and off the bus at every stop, as he referred to me as “Yankee” without me doing or saying anything.

This was not the first and probably won’t be the last time I will be viewed as an American without displaying any obvious indicators. But, I have found ways to limit the exposure of those “tells,” regardless of who you are:

  1. Don’t bring white name-brand sneakers. Shoes are a luxury in much of the world. If you are lucky enough to have two pairs, one is designated for everyday living and the other for church or other formal engagements. Wearing nice white sneakers are a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner and have the means to afford a shoe that gets dirty quickly.
  2. Keep your University of Denver shirts, hoodies and sweatpants at home-You are basically wearing a big sign on your chest that indicates where you are from, your age and why you are there. Also, this attire is informal, which is odd in much of the world.
  3. Keep your voice down-Yes, it is true, Americans are loud and very opinionated. There’s nothing wrong with this fact, however, there is a time and place for everything and sitting on a quite bus is no place to complain about a lack of facilities, or being hungry, or feeling “gross.”
  4.  Walk upright and be confident-Of course you are unsure about where you are going and what you are doing. Who wouldn’t be in a foreign country with a foreign language? The point is that nobody else needs to know. Be confident in your direction and walk down the street with a sense of purpose.  Aggressive vendors love tourists who have wandering eyes and walk a stop-and-go pace. 

– Pablo Hester, DUSA Graduate Peer Advisor

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