Why I Hate Being An American Tourist

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and my sister and I are tucked up in a hotel room because Eurovision is about to begin and we. cannot. wait. There is little more exciting to Americans in a foreign land than experiencing a pan-European cultural phenomenon that the U.S. is resoundingly not allowed to RSVP to. Graham Norton’s bitchy, disinterested comments, sounding more like a series of live-tweets than official commentary, lull us into the world that somehow manages to combine the horridness and cheese factor of “American Idol” with the incomprehensible political angling and thematics of the Olympics.

Immediately we were hooked. We had front-row (bed) seats to openly conduct our own anthropological study as outsiders looking in at something for the first time. For five hours our brows furrowed, our fists shook, “Why do Eastern European countries vote for Russia?! Don’t they remember the Cold War!?” and our giggles tried to drown out the raucousness of the busiest street in Edinburgh hosting endless hen and stag night do’s.

In truth, much of our recent two-week venture to the U.K. and many of my four others over the last decade, have had a similar air of anthropological study. It’s a natural propensity when you plop a wallflower observer into a foreign land for her to spend her time acutely studying the world she sees around her. But unlike Eurovision, my attention was rarely on the Europeans.

By now I’ve spent enough time in the U.K. through both my studies and travels to feel fairly at home there. I’ve got the awkwardness fairly down, I know better than to present a swipe card instead of a chip and pin in most establishments, drop “sorry” instead of “excuse me” for everything, and always keep change for the pay and display parking. I do not linger long in the right lane, I know everything outside of London closes by 5 p.m., you must eat ice cream always, and you can have a 45-minute conversation with someone about their dog and still not know their name. I’m comfortable enough there to no longer be gawking at British children doing parkour through the streets, asking the Scotsman to please repeat what he just said, nor be surprised that roads that resemble something a drunken toddler designed with a crayon are actually main thoroughfares.

Instead, these days, my eyes turn to my fellow Americans abroad, and let me tell you, watching your brethren from the outside strikes an altogether different approach to how you perceive your nation. Tourism, from the perspective of both the local and the tourist, is what the lower levels of hell are relegated to. In an effort to see and do and experience something new, you’re generally forced to turn into the worst variation of yourself. You’re packing for unknowns (weather, events, activities) in a limited space for perhaps a substantial length of time and you have to choose between functional and fun, and never the twain shall meet. So there you are, in a foreign country, wearing shoes that make you stick out because they are either trying way too hard to be fashionable (stilettos to tour a castle, really?) or they look like your grandmother bought them for her bunions. You’re waiting in line for everything, your back and shoulders are aching from all the shit you’ve been carrying through various airports, train stations, and up 10 flights of hotel stairs with no lifts, and your resting bitch face is permanently set to “scare small children.” You’re grumpy, yet over-eager, your FOMO has you on a blitz-like mission to see ALL THE THINGS to the point that even your loved ones are ready to cut you.

American tourist you is not the best version of you by any stretch of the imagination. Sitting in an international city and people watching is a priceless lesson in learning that some stereotypes are true. Each nationality seems to have its own quirks for traveling and my eye for guessing your origin based on your outfit grows ever keener by the day. (Seriously, Germans, how are you permanently dressed for every possible weather event in stylish but functional clothes?)

And my fellow Americans, we can be spotted a mile away, and not just because of those really unfortunate man-sandal/sock combos. It’s the dazed gleam in our eye of, “How charming and twee provincial Europe is! It’s not how we would do it, but it’s a cute effort.” It’s in how we can’t fathom that a shower could actually be that small or that there isn’t a Starbucks on every corner. We exude it every time we scoff at the lack of ice cubes or air conditioners, the fact that a large drink is actually large and not the size of a small child, or when we despair that something has the audacity to not be written first in English. There’s a look to Americans, barely hidden by our over-the-top charm, loud voices, and need for instantaneous satisfaction.

It’s our superiority complex and you can spot it a hundred yards out.

In a restaurant in Northern Wales, my sister and I were seated in front of a table of angry shouting Welshman (in Welsh), beside a group of grumpy Ukrainian boys, and six tables of mid-life German bros were inhaling large pints and shouting “Proust” behind us. And yet it was the table of two older Texan couples immediately behind us that drew our attention. It was the usual American fodder, us reminding everyone that once 100+ years ago someone in our family hailed from these lands, and then in a louder voice, remarking on 1.) how important and prestigious they were (everyone you’ve ever met is somehow related to a British royal) and 2.) how they had the good sense to get out. It’s all so delightfully quaint to have distant European ancestors, to stand in a tartan shop on the Royal Mile in Scotland and ask an exhausted shopkeeper to name whose clan the pink, teal, and purple tartan belongs to (spoiler: none), because you’re sure it belongs to a laird (because it’s always someone important) on your father’s side. The elderly Texans told the waiter (who was Eastern European, not Welsh and definitely not Irish, wrong island), “My great-great-great-great-great grandfather had some red in his hair and was named Conor Murphy—doesn’t get much more Irish than that. Our Irish heritage is so important to our family. We saw ‘Riverdance’ on Broadway twice.”

If your eyes could actually fall out of your head from being rolled too hard, ours would’ve been in their plate of fish and chips. Our shameless eavesdropping continued, listening to the poor waiter be regaled with stories of their noble heritage that more closely resembled a “Western Civilization for Dummies” account than any real understanding of the nations and histories they allegedly descended from.

But what stood out the most was that it didn’t stand out at all. This is who we are when we’re abroad, we discern ourselves from the rest of the international tourists because we are uniquely special—we are the returning prodigal sons and daughters back to spend our (failing) dollars; condescending to visit and lord over how much better we have it now. While most tourists often go somewhere they know little to nothing about beforehand, most Americans I’ve met on my travels are equally ignorant to the culture and history and simultaneously claiming it as their own.

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laughing friends having fun on picnic

Through this ignorance, we exude our right to be superior. We don’t need to know that there is more to Ireland than wee leprechauns or that Britain managed to survive a thousand years of invasions long before America ever “rescued” them from the Germans. We wield our superiority like a battle axe abroad. I’ve stood in a chapel with the names of all British fallen soldiers from both world wars, wars that America arrived to after millions upon millions were already killed and at the last possible moment, and heard Americans loudly remark, “If it weren’t for us, they’d all be speaking German. You’d think they’d be a bit more grateful.” At the same memorial I heard an Austrian whisper to his friend, “Hard to be proud of your country here.”

I too have British Isle ancestry (more peasant than royalty). I’ve stood on Cornwall’s craggy coast and felt like I belonged, like some part of me long ago walked these hills and called it home. When I studied in England I lamented that groceries closed at 4 p.m. on a Sunday and that everything was slightly harder to do when I got home. As my plane touched down back into U.S. soil for the first time in five months in 2006, my roommates and I shared an “America, Fuck Yeah” high five and got some Five Guys. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in loving your country or acknowledging the differences between it, and even preferring your own, but rather it’s the act of routinely denigrating those nuanced differences—of intrinsically assuming superiority, often via sheer ignorance—that makes it unbearable.

Each summer I return to the U.K. and try a little harder to learn, to experience, to fit in. I set down my camera more and listen to the locals, I watch the BBC and read The Guardian. I follow the politics and the pop culture and fill my shelves with its history books. I have an obsession with the U.K., an underlying desire to know and absorb as much about it as I can. With every visit and new lesson, I learn more about not only myself but learn to think critically and analytically about my own country. I see our braggadocio that we wear in flashing neon upon our sleeves to blind others to our warts. It teaches me how to look at one-sided history and that the world did not begin in 1776 nor will it end when we, as the Roman and British Empires did, fall. The world does not tilt upon an American axis, no matter how loudly we insist it does.

We need to learn to be better guests in other nations’ home; to be more open-minded, to question instead of judge. Maybe we wouldn’t stand out quite as much, maybe we’d learn something, maybe we’d see that we’re not the first victors to write the history books. Maybe the rest of the world would stop looking at us as that obnoxiously successful cousin (who always rubs your nose in it) that no one wants to sit next to at the family reunions.

Hell, maybe they’d even invite us to Eurovision.

View Comments (8)
  • Aaaaaand THIS is what I’m screaming. I’m almost ashamed to say I’m American when I travel abroad just because of the baseless arrogance it connotes.

  • Are you kidding? At the age of 46 and having lived and worked in almost 70 countries, I always find it surprising how apologetic american travelers are. Gone are the days(if they ever existed) of the ugly american, cluelesss to local custom. If anything american travelers walk on eggshells as to not offend.

    And by the way, that austrian couple you spoke about. Did they have their private conversation in english or do you fluently understand german? Or is this a made up scenario? My girlfriend and I are both polyglots but speak to each other in our native tongue. Do you speak/understand german or did they have a private conversation in a foreign language…one that you could hear and understand? And if they spoke to each other in german I assume you are fluent. Haben sie beiden Deutsch gesprochen? Wenn Ja…bitte koennen sie mir bitte in Deutsch antworten.

    Ich erwarte ihren antwort.

    Rob Walbridge


    • Hi Robert,
      I’m glad you had a different experience than I have – it’s good to see that it’s not all the same. As for the Austrians, they spoke in English and in the next sentence speaking (I assume) to their British friends, referenced their life back home…in Austria. No need to be fluent in multiple languages when you can eavesdrop perfectly well in English :)

  • I loved this post so much. After having traveled in many countries in Europe and in Asia – I totally get it. When I lived in Europe for several years as an exchange student, the trick I saw some Americans use while living there was that they would put a Canadian flag patch on their backpack, so they wouldn’t risk being made as the American, because the other ones they saw in the environment were embarrassing. The worst though, is the culture shock when you come home. Ultra bright lights, big arrogance … big everything. Everywhere though has its good and bad – it’s nice to have a sense of humor about it all – as citizens of this planet together. ; )

  • I know what you are talking about. I moved to the UK from the US more than ten years ago. I rarely go back and really have no nostalgia for it what so ever. Listening to Americans is one of my secret past times. Albeit in my head I’m fuming most of the time. I have even sunken as low as to having outbursts on public transportation or in pubs when I hear Americans talking shite. “Like….. Would you like please like stop saying LIKE every other word?” or “You’re an Ambassador while your here, act like one!” Ok Ok , I admit I might be a bit of a cynical old fart. But I’m getting better at the tolerance these days for my “fellow” countrymen, yet still avoid them like the plague. Nonetheless, after being here over 10 years I get a similar feeling when I travel to other countries and run into a pack of pissed up Britts making twats out of themselves abroad. My Eastern European wife says similar about her kind whilst traveling, so it may be a worldwide phenomenon with some people. Not to mention the US and the UK being joined at the hip politically and I’m feeling a move away from here might be in the cards as well. !bombs bombs bombs) The grass isn’t greener this side for sure as a lot of people really struggle in the UK as compared to the average US lifestyle so Americans somehow see this as backwards. That’s the thing untraveled Americans don’t get. There is a whole world out there where people do things differently everyday to get by. And by taking America with you on holiday and comparing everything to one’s own overabundant lifestyle is absurd. I feel less and less like i belong to any specific nation the more a travel about. Especially after seeing America from the other side of the world looking back.. Very scary indeed the crap they are putting out into the world, and they want everyone globally to follow suit. To hell with that.

    “Vive la différence!”

    When people ask me where I’m from a do openly admit America, but then follow up with a ” sorry about that… don’t blame me……I had nothing to with it! ” Usually gets a good laugh and breaks the ice for open discussion. Haha

  • That was absolutely captivating! Katie, you’re beyond eloquent and your writing is very polished. Mad props!

  • First of all…. Have you ever been to Mallorca Spain? And if so, Germans and Brits are the only people wearing Sandels and socks… I think every country had annoying tourists. Brits, Aussies and Germans can be just as bad as any American tourist. Take a trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam sometime. I just witnessed some British hag yelling about towels at a hostel as if her measly 10 dollars a night warranted the world to stop until she received what she wanted.

  • I dont dress like a tourist. I do like the locals do. I would never ever go to any tourist information and going with a map in town is fucking dorky i use map on phone instead of having a paper.

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