The Ugly Traveler
My friend Jiro is a perfect example of a global citizen. Although he was born and raised in Japan, he was also raised in the USA and he spent several summers in Switzerland before I met him in Hawaii. It was his fluency in English and Japanese that landed him a job with the U.S. military in Japan, serving as a translator.
Jiro was asked to accompany a group of soldiers who had obtained a weekend pass to go off base. They traveled to a small town in rural Japan.
At around lunch time Jiro said, “Hey, guys? It’s lunch time. Where do you want to eat?”
Jiro shook his head. “Uh, guys? We are in a small town. There are no McDonalds here. Where do you want to eat?”
I chuckled at the soldiers’ ignorance.
Recently there was a story about a family visiting Yellowstone National Park who loaded a baby bison into their car because they thought the animal was cold. As a result of their interference the calf had to be killed because the mother rejected it and the baby posed a threat to tourists.
Here in Hawaii, my home state, I have seen tourists at the beach touch the shells of Hawaiian green sea turtles as the endangered species are swimming in their natural habitat. But what is even more upsetting is that these tourists encourage their kids to follow suit.
Just because you are traveling and on vacation doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind or behave the way you do at home.
This past Memorial Day weekend Hawaii News Now aired a story about volunteers picking up trash off Waikiki Beach and divers cleaning the sea floor. All the inflatable tubes and beer bottles that were left was a result of an impromptu flotilla event. Visitors left over 200 floaties for their hosts to pick up. And that doesn’t even count the countless bottles, coolers, and shoes.
These are examples of ugly travellers.
Unfortunately ignorance is universal. You’ve heard the phrases the ugly European, the ugly American, and the ugly Japanese.
Now it’s China’s turn.
There have been several incidents of bad behavior involving Chinese tourists. Two years ago there was a story of a fifteen year old middle school student defacing an ancient Egyptian relic. Then there was an incident involving a Chinese couple throwing hot instant noodles at a Thai flight attendant because they could not get the seats they wanted. Then there was a domestic incident involving a man opening an emergency exit door while the plane was on the tarmac because he wanted “fresh air”.
It has gotten so bad that the Chinese government has had to draw up a set of guidelines for would-be travelers on what is acceptable behavior and what is not. They have also created their version of a no-fly list where travelers who have a history of misbehavior are banned from boarding a plane.
I have never personally encountered rude travelers. However, I witnessed a very tense situation between two groups of tourists.
I took a domestic flight to Kunming, land of the eternal spring. On my to-do places to visit was the Karst Stone Forest. I found a local tour company and was joined by four Chinese tourists — two men and two women — and four foreign students from Beijing Foreign Language Institute. The three boys were from Japan and Korea. The lone woman in their party was from Spain.
When we arrived at our destination our tour guide requested that everyone be back on the bus by 4 p.m. 4 p.m. came and went. All of the foreigners, including yours truly, were back on the bus as instructed.
Where were the Chinese tourists?
“We have a 7 p.m. train to Zhongdian to catch,” the Korean student told our guide.
Our guide gets on her phone and calls one of the Chinese tourists. “The foreigners are already here! They have a train to catch! Kuai di er! Hurry up!”
Unfortunately the tourists did not “hurry up” as ordered and made us wait a full forty-five minutes before calling our very stressed out guide to meet them somewhere else. It wasn’t until 4:50 that the Chinese boarded the bus. By then, the atmosphere was already tense. The guide scolded the tourists while the Spanish woman screamed curse words in Spanish. None of us understood what she said. But we foreigners could understand the sentiment and nodded in agreement.
As someone who has traveled and lived abroad I have tried to represent my country as best I could. I’d learn the language. I’d eat local food. I’d take public transportation. I’d adhere to the adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
I’d assimilate as much as I could into the local culture.
The only time I would not assimilate is at work. As an American English teacher my job is to present an opportunity for my students to learn English from a native speaker. I would never speak, in my case, Chinese to my students even outside of class.
My job also included teaching western culture to Chinese students who were thinking of studying abroad, primarily in the United States. I taught about the usual western holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. But I also taught more obscure customs. Since I’m from Hawaii I taught my students the Hukilau Song and dance.
Usually this lesson is received with enthusiasm. However, at one school it was not.
At this school I was called in for a meeting. At this meeting I was put on the spot when a Chinese colleague said that students told her they thought learning Hawaiian was, in their words, “not important”.
These were students who were thinking of studying in the United States.
But because I’m a guest in their country I had no recourse but to speak with my feet. I had to play by their rules no matter how ridiculous they sounded.
I left. As I left I thought of what these students might encounter should they actually get to America. If they were in Texas and they said “Spanish is not important” to a Latino, they’d get a knuckle sandwich.
If they were a student in Hawaii and they said “Hawaiian is not important” to a native Hawaiian…you get the picture.
If I had a chance to educate anyone who is planning to travel, I would say this:
When you travel — albeit for pleasure, study, or work – you are in someone else’s home. You are in someone else’s church. You are a guest and are expected to behave as one. You are to follow their house rules, not yours. If your hostess offers you ice tea you don’t throw it in her face because you wanted instant noodles.
You represent more than yourself when you travel. You represent your family, your community, your state, province, or canton, and your country. You are a good will ambassador. You have an ability that most world leaders could never have; that being building life long people-to-people relationships. You can do so much more for international relations than any world leader can do.
However, when you travel your hosts will expect you to learn something about their culture and lifestyle. Learn it. They expect you to obey their laws and observe their customs. Obey them. They also expect you to be on your best behavior and to assimilate. Assimilate. If you keep these three tips in mind, you will have a great experience.
So, join your new found friends for an Irish coffee. Watch a live American football game. Drink tea with an old Chinese man on the street. Represent well. And for God’s sake, make your country proud!