meeting an american
Opinion, United States

3 Things You Should Know About Americans

Like many who travel abroad, I find myself entering similar conversations wherever I go. None of this is bad, cultural exchange is important. But then there’s those pesky stereotypes that we’re all predisposed to. I can’t speak to what Italians or Germans have to deal with – but as someone from the United States, I’ve got three major things you should know about Americans.

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We Don’t Get Out as Much as We Should

In America, the open road is a barrier to travel. This place is just so damn BIG. Going from Los Angeles to New York is a 41-hour drive. Just to traveling from the top of California to the bottom would take 13 hours of driving! Then there’s Alaska. I mean c’mon – Alaska? There’s a polar state just hanging out up there. My opinion? Just give it to Canada and be done with it.

But as long as we have Alaska, America retains it’s unique position of being a country in all five of the Köppen climate classifications. We have a tropical climate in Florida, the desert in Las Vegas, a temperate zone on the West Coast, a continental area where I’m from, and the polar climate in Alaska. What!?

If you can imagine a family from Minnesota planning their vacation, chances are they’ll go down to a beach in Texas instead of one in Italy. Even then, most Americans will never see all 50 states – forget about Hawaii, I’ve never been to Idaho.

Internationally, the high cost of flying to Europe and a lack of vacation days is a tall barrier. For some people, it just makes sense to stay in the country. I’m not saying it’s right, but it is what it is. The good news is we’re getting better at international travel. In 1990, four percent of Americans had a passport. That’s up to about 42% now.

Dubuque, IA
Dubuque Iowa, hometown of the author, named after dead French fur trapper Julien Dubuque.

A Lot of America is in the Middle

Where I grew up, the nearest ocean was over 800 miles away. I was in the middle. Not New York, or Los Angeles or Las Vegas, but Dubuque, Iowa (population: 60,000). Big cities, crowded streets, and decent public transit were foreign to me. There was corn and cows in every direction outside of the city. That said, I didn’t grow up on a farm (most of us didn’t). Something that even Americans ask me when I say I’m from Iowa.

Like you, I know people who’ve lived their entire life in the same place. It’s a comfortable life and one that many subscribe to. And to be fair, I’ve spent the last twenty-five years in the American midwest – Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Combined, those states make up less than 5% of the total U.S. population. Not a lot, but it’s all I’ve known – and I reckon it’s one reason I have such a strong passion for travel.

But the important thing here is something called, “Midwestern values”. That’s honesty, fairness, modesty and a belief in one’s word. Because in my view, all you’ve got is your word – and a broken promise is hard to put back together. These are ideas that make for good travelers. So, I encourage you to seek out people from the middle. You’ll notice us because we’re smiling at you.

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You can hear more about being a Midwestern traveler during my recorded conversation on Coastless.

Warning: politics rant ahead

Most of Us Didn’t Vote for Him

The president. He’s someone most Americans think about everyday – often traumatically. And up until 2016, I thought our institutions were better than this. A lot of us did. But there’s a comfort and privilege that I had growing up which many didn’t. As such, I was oblivious to the discrimination, corruption, and flat-out evil that’s going on in the world. It’s been a wake up call.

Now, I complain about America – a lot. And it’s because I know what we can be: a multicultural, pluralistic, egalitarian society. Or in other words, a place where every race, religion and way of life can live and work together – and where everyone can have a say in the direction of our country. It’s the advertising material we all learn in school, and it’s not new.

But when it comes to the president, that’s not what America is. Some would say our government as a whole has problems with poor people, minorities, and the abused. And in my lifespan of experience, I’m inclined to agree.

Right now I can hear my parents saying, “Ryan, look at all the good America has done in the world.” To that I say, yes we’ve done a lot of good. Look no further than the American cemeteries in France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands to see the sacrifices Americans have made for others. But all the good deeds of the dead mean nothing if we destroy the planet they saved. Because the road we’re on now is dangerous: climate change denial, never-ending war, economic exploitation, and systematic corruption.

But with all this in mind, my word of caution comes down to vocabulary. It may not seem like much – and it’s not – but avoid phrases with, “Your president”. As it implies ownership or approval of what’s happening in the US. Semantically, it’s the same suggestion I give in my article on hostel living: don’t affix ownership of the world wars to Germans.

He’s our president. But most of us didn’t vote for him and most of us travel to get away from him. I’m not saying you should avoid politics. I love politics and the way it helps us look at the world.

With an article like this, it’s hard to not come across like one big complaint. Come over to Kansas City and we’ll work it out over a few beers and some BBQ.