Are you a balanced traveler?

By Ellen Weathers, API Buenos Aires Peer Mentor

It was the last day to buy souvenirs for my family. That trip was the most exciting thing I had ever experienced, and I was determined to share it with everyone back home. When I exited the souvenir emporium tucked in a busy corner of Chicago’s Chinatown, I left with two tiny Buddha figurines and an overwhelming sense of confusion.

After a standard greeting and the exchange of eight crumpled dollars, the cashier had noticed my accent and asked if I was from the South. Having received this question numerous times during the trip, I answered yes without thinking twice. After all, my family had warned me that an Alabama drawl stands out nearly everywhere.

“Bad state,” the cashier responded. “You secede from the Union.”

I laughed nervously, took the change and walked away. No one said I would face a lesson about the social and political history of my home. I had no idea what to think, much less say.

Fast forward ten years to my arrival in Buenos Aires. I had embarked on a semester abroad, one of many trips undertaken since first catching the travel bug shortly after that week in the Windy City. I loved the city and relished the porteno accent. In some ways I felt aligned with the Argentines— in a people-who have-an-instantly-identifiable-regional-accent kind of way.

Some people I met in Argentina, both local and foreign, gave me the distinction of being the first person from Alabama they had ever met. Some of the other API students slowly added y’all into their speech, and I quickly realized that Forrest Gump is loved and quoted around the world.

One afternoon an Argentine student struck up conversation and quickly guessed my home state before asking, “Do you own slaves?”

“No,” I said defensively before walking way with memories of the Chinatown experience.

I returned a few minutes later and asked if that was his idea of Alabama. He said slavery and racism were all he remembered learning about the South. This was my chance to be an ambassador for my state and country– to acknowledge the Civil War, highlight the Civil Rights Movement, focus on the present and stress the value of discretion.

As representatives of such a large and colorful country, American students abroad should represent the United States as well as possible, even in situations where the offense surpasses calling us names or hurts worse than that first hit to one’s idealistic view of the world.

We should stay calm, choose our words wisely and remember that walking away from an opportunity to teach someone about our home disrupts the balance of travel and meeting new people. We all learn from each other and together, we make our world a better place.

 

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