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11 Things All Americans Should Know

For almost eight of the last 15 years of my life, I’ve lived outside of America. Most of that time was spent in Asia, but I also lived in Southern Africa and have traveled extensively through Europe, and Central and South America. I won’t bore you with all the exact details, but I’ve been to a fair number of places and just returned to America after spending ten months backpacking in places like Southeast Asia, India, Turkey  and Southern Europe. Between this trip and my years of living abroad, I’ve consistently observed a few things around the globe that I think could help settle a few of the debates that continue to rage in America.

For better or worse, Rihanna is the most popular person in music right now.

downloadI know this isn’t the most important debate topic out there, I just thought it was something people should know in case it comes up. She was far and away the most played artist I encountered in my ten months of backpacking, and I heard her consistently in almost every country I went to. I even heard one of her songs-albeit while on a tourist bus- when I was in Myanmar, a country that has only been open to the outside world for three years and where Coke is a brand new product.

Homosexuals are everywhere.

People can sit around and argue about whether or not homosexuality is natural or a choice, but they most certainly cannot argue that it’s “a product of decadent Western culture.” I’ve encountered gays in every single country I’ve spent any amount of time in, and I didn’t have to go out of my way to find them. And this very much includes the countries and cultures where their existence is largely denied or despised like in South Korea, Serbia and many Arab cultures. It seems clear to me homosexuality is a naturally occurring condition just like heterosexuality. It’s the only way I can explain it literally being everywhere.

Climate Change is Real. Very, very real!

Starting back to my first trip overseas to Southern Africa, I have had this crazy habit of being in places while they have once-in-a-century floods, snow falls or droughts. Either I’m really bad luck or the climate everywhere is changing. On this most recent trip, I learned that asking someone about the weather really isn’t small talk anymore. That question would instantly lead to serious conversations about all the unusual things going on in weather patterns. For example, there was an extreme lack of rain during the tropical rainy season in Malaysia while I was there and waterfalls had literally run dry. In Leh, in the highlands of Kashmir, India, there is real fear the region might run out of water altogether because all their water comes from glacial run offs, and the glaciers and snow packs are getting smaller and smaller each year. Meanwhile, on the other side of Kashmir, in the lowlands and just a month after I left, a once-in-a-century flood put the city of Srinagar completely underwater this summer. Meanwhile, there were record breaking highs in the Balkans this fall.

Gun’s Don’t Make a Place Feel or Look Safe. 

Does this make you feel like you’re in a safe place?

I have been to countries that can only be described as a gun nut’s wet dream. These places had heavily armed police and guards everywhere and some even had a ton of gun stores. I know a lot of people say this is what they want for America. They want cops carrying guns in our schools, our malls and on our streets, and they want citizens doing the same. Well, all I can say is that when walking around a place where the good guys are carrying AK-47s and M-16s, like in India and the Philippines, all I can think is, “Why are all the guns needed? How can a place possibly claim to be safe if this much firepower  is necessary?” Because when you contrast a place that has a lot of heavily armed security like in the picture on the right with places like Japan and Iceland where there’s not an armed guard in sight; there is no question which place feels safe and which one feels occupied. A truly safe place doesn’t need a lot of security, a truly dangerous place does. America doesn’t need more guns, it needs to figure how to be more safe so we can have fewer guns.

The Rest of the World Knows We Have a Race Problem, but We’re not Alone.

In a way, I feel like I have to address this to two audiences. The first audience are those Americans who do not think there are serious racial issues at play in America. To them, all I can say is that everyone else in the world, black, white, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, you name it, they can see it. If you, as an American, really don’t, it’s because you’re too close to it all and our culture’s inherent prejudices are blocking your vision. Sometimes you need the perspective of someone who is on the outside looking in to help you see the full picture. The other thing I’ll say is for everyone else, America is not alone in having some serious issues with prejudice and discrimination. Be it the Buddhist of Myanmar who are persecuting Muslims, or people in India who seem to worship whites and white skin, or the way some Canadians and Australians talk about their indigenous populations or the surface level hatreds that still exist in the Balkans between many people who would be considered the same race in America, every country has it’s own prejudices. They all play themselves out in different ways, but they are all harmful.

The Rest of the World is Developing Quickly.

imagesEvery poor and not so poor country I’ve been in the last few years traveling have had one important thing in common: they are developing super fast. Everywhere I turned on this most recent trip, I saw positive signs of development. Sometimes it was in places that really need it and sometimes it was in places where it now seems they’re just trying to show off. In Jaipur, India, they were doing the first test of their new subway system while I was there. In Cambodia, massive construction and development projects that will change the country forever are already underway in places like Kam Pot and Kep. In Turkey, they have the nicest bus and highway system I’ve ever seen and massive new highrises are going up everywhere in Istanbul. In Seoul, they just keep adding to their already massive and impressive subway system. These places and countless more are developing their infrastructure and public transportation systems in such a way that I feel America is being left in the dust as we continue to refuse to make the investments needed to catch up.

Religions Care more About Buildings than Deeds.

IMG_4086Name the country, name the religion and I will promise you it is collecting money from poor people to build beautiful buildings that aren’t needed. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world and has more temples per capita than just about anywhere. That said, money is still being collected to build lots of new ones. Myanmar was the most extreme case of this I saw, but it was true of Christian churches in Southern Europe and the Philippines, Muslim Mosques in Kashmir and Hindu temples in Nepal. And I’ve seen the same in America where some of the poorest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen in places like West Virginia and Mississippi were often blessed with sparkling new churches, thank God.

Good Ol’ Fashioned American Food Is Becoming Really Popular.

That’s right, just about any place I’ve gone with anything close to a metropolitan feel has had at least one or two restaurants offering American food. And by American food I, of course, mean burritos and tacos. But seriously, Mexican food really has taken off and I think it’s fair to say Americans have helped with that. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve sat with Americans talking about the first meal they want when they get back to the States and unironically start talking about Mexican food.

People Don’t Hate Americans and Tons Still Want to Come to Here.

Sometimes I feel I’m too hard on my homeland. It’s easy for me to find things about it that I think need to change, but that so many people around the world would hear I’m from America and instantly start talking about how lucky I am and how much they want to move here causes me to think I need to focus more on the America’s positives. Remember that thing I said earlier about sometimes needing an outsider’s view to get the whole picture, well, I guess when it comes to seeing all the ways America still is a land of opportunity, I need to try harder to see what people on the outside are seeing. I also have to mention here that not only do people want to come here because they think they can make a good life for themselves, people, by and large, also like Americans. In Bosnia, I was thanked for the US-led NATO intervention time and again. (Just to be perfectly clear, I was not directly involved in it.) In Bulgaria, where an impressive percentage of their population has immigrated to places like Chicago, I was constantly told how nice Americans are by people who had lived here or visited. In fact, I’d say next to Americans being loud, the next most common stereotype about us is that we’re nice. So please stop asking Americans who have just returned from overseas if people hate us. They don’t.

America’s Diversity Is Showing.

Speaking of finding something positive to say about America, one of the things I’ve been most pleased with in the last few years of living overseas is finally seeing America’s diversity being reflected abroad. When I first started traveling, I can truly say I was the only person of color in the vast majority of hostels on the vast majority of nights. However, going back to my last few years living in Korea and up to this most recent trip, the number of minorities not just from America, but from countries like Canada, England and Australia has simply exploded. On this most recent trip there were more than a few times when I sat with a small group of Americans and felt taken aback by the fact that with several of us there, most of us weren’t white. In my mind it was a powerful message to everyone around us that being American isn’t an issue of skin color and that a lot of us are moving our country forward on the racial front.

People are Overwhelming Decent.

With the almost universal exception of cab drivers, people around the world are decent. No, strike that. They are more than decent. They are kind, friendly, caring and helpful. I could not have lived overseas or traveled as much as I have if this were not the case. As one of my travel mates once said, “When you travel and need help, someone will be there to help you.” In my experience that is 100% true, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to pay forward the numerous acts of kindness I’ve received while being out there in the world.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

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