Let me start this post by saying that I am proud to be an American and proud of the freedoms that our country represents. This post is not meant to be controversial. It is meant to teach and share some insights with families that will be taking family vacations abroad for the first time.
As Americans, we tend to see ourselves as free thinkers living in the greatest country in the world. We are independent individuals and rebels with a cause. Even though we are called a melting pot of cultures, many of us do not see ourselves as Americans. Instead we identify ourselves closer to our ancestrial roots whether that is Irish, Korean, Latino or Afro-American. With hard work, a competitive spirit and determination, we believe each of us can accomplish our dreams. Our lifestyle tends to be informal and very hectic. We tend to judge other cultures as better or worse than our own instead of simply being different.
How we Americans see ourselves and how other cultures view Americans can be very different. Many people in other countries think Americans are arrogant, obnoxious, dominant and rude. Many Americans are shocked when confronted with these stereotypical fact about themselves.
Speaking of facts, Americans tend to be more isolated from foreign travel. Back when I first started Vacationkids in 2000 I was shocked by the statistic that only 12% of Americans had valid passports. Back then families could travel to most of the Caribbean and Mexico with just an original birth certificate and photo ID. Post 9/11, border crossing rules have changed and now passports are required to travel to these destinations and Canada. As a result, reports now estimate that about 35% of Americans in 2012 held a valid passport.
We the people of America are global citizens despite the fact that we a separated from the majority of the world by vast oceans. The world grows smaller each day for our children thanks to social media. Our actions speak much louder than our words, especially when it comes to setting a good example for our kids...and the rest of the world for that matter.
This is why I think foreign travel is SO VERY important for families...It changes our perception, how we see ourselves in the context of the world community. It is a VERY important lesson for children and grown ups alike to learn.
Whenever we travel or take a vacation in a foreign country, whether we like it or not, we become American Ambassadors. We are no longer the Hobbs family from Brooklyn or the Vargus family from Albuquerque...we become that "American Family" to others. If you care about America the way I do, you will want to represent it in the best ways possible.
Here are some tips I've gathered over the years on become good travel ambassadors....
1. Do Some Research - Foreign travel is not simply about booking flights and choosing a hotel. You need to spend some time understanding the local culture and social norms of the areas your family plans to visit. This is a fantastic family activity that can be made age appropriate for just about every member of the family. Make it fun to find interest facts and discuss them at the dinner table.
2. Practice Good Manners - Speaking of the dinner table, we Americans tend to be a fast food nation that eats in front of the TV. Many countries have elevated dining and table manners to an art form. If you do not want everyone in the restaurant to be staring at your family as you pick up your sandwiches in your hands then know before you go. Play restaurant roll playing games with younger children. Ask older kids to point out good and bad manners when you're out in public. Some countries may consider it good maners to bow or shake hands when greeting people. Don't be embarrassed by ignorance.
3. Talk Softly - This will make a much bigger first impression. By nature, we Americans talk loudly and make lots of noise where ever we go. Because we're so used to moving at such a fast pace, we also tend to interrupt foreigners or finish their sentences. For many of us, when trying to communicate with foreigners we subconsciously raise the volume of our voice as if that will help us to be better understood. Flailing arm jesters can also be viewed as insulting by others. Instead try a language translator for your smart phone like SayHi or googletranslate. Do us all a favor, take it down a notch.
4. Don't rely on Technology to Talk - Do not expect everyone to speak english where ever you travel. Phone apps can really come in handy but if you're spending the money and time to travel overseas do everyone a big favor and take the time to learn a few key words. You do not need to become a linguistist but a few key words will certainly come in handy...
- Manners are always important - a proper Hello & Goodbye, Please & thank you, Nice to meet you, etc. Being able to properly greet someone in their native tongue is a huge sign of respect and the way to get off on the right foot.
- Utility Words - Bathroom, bus or taxi, airport terms, favorite foods and some food or menu items.
- Safety words are also important to know just in case...words like - help, fire, police, exit, stop and call a doctor.
Learning new words or even phrases can be a fun family activity and a great a way to prep for your trip. Games like "Word of the day" can be fun. Don't be surprised if your kids are far better remembering words than you are!
5. Dress nicely - You may think it's perfectly acceptable to wear your pajamas out in public here in the states but by comparison many people really dress up in suits and heels to just go food shopping. In other countries, folks will only wear sneakers when they work out in the gym. If you wear your nikes and a baseball hat for a day of sightseeing you'll stick out like a neon sign.
6. Try To Blend - This is a matter of respect as well as safety. I don't care how much of a fashionista you are at home, leave any expensive or sentimental jewlery at home. Why set yourself up as a target for opportunistic crime, especially if you are traveling to a country where poverty is an issue. I know you're a "Proud American" but wearing this tee shirt in some countries may make you a target.
7. Respect the Culture - No matter how strange, weird or quirky something may seem to you, treat each new experience with honor and respect. This is not the time to act the American rebel, poke fun or make snide comments. If you need to dress a certain way to enter a house of worship, take your shoes off before entering a building or are offered hospitality that is far different than your own keep an open mind and heart. Often these will be some of your most memorable and inspiring travel moments.
8. Give Your Kids Rules Ahead Of Time -Most foreign parents do not allow their children to run around the table in a restaurant. Many foreign countries have much lower legal drinking ages for teenagers. You and your kids need to discuss acceptable rules and behaviors in advance to avoid conflicts in the moment.
9. Do Not Compare Everything to "Back Home" - Remember when your family travels overseas, you are guests in that country. You need to adapt to their culture - not the other way around. Chances are the streets will be more crowded, food portions, homes and hotel rooms will be much smaller. If you are the type of person who expects American lifestyle standards every place you visit then you will be much better served by staying home. Sadly, this means you will miss the inspiring views atop machu picchu, the ocean reefs of Australia and never get to taste real French bread.
10. Set The Example For Your Kids and the rest of the world - If this is your first time traveling oversea it promise to be a very exciting time for your family. No doubt there will also be a few confusing or stressful moments for parents. Don't fly off into a rage of explatives. Handle any problems or hassles with a cool head. Remeber others will be watching you...including your kids.