I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.
- Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
- Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
- Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
- Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
- Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.
But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.
The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.
The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.
There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.
I think I’ve said before that English is the universal language. Well I think it is better said by Jay Walker here in this TED talk, which is both a little scary and a little inspiring.
His point is that the local language will always be the first one learned and the primary one used amongst people. But English is quickly becoming the world’s second language.
To use an example to drive the point home, China will next year become the world’s largest English speaking country. Every year 80 million Chinese students will take a test for which they have spent 12 hours a day for three years studying – and 25% of it will be scored on their mastery of English.
I’ve found that you can typically get around most countries just fine by knowing only a few words and phrases in the local language. That’s not to say that you’ll be free of problems and misunderstandings, but knowing at least a little bit of the language the locals grow up speaking is a great diplomatic move, if nothing else. It shows at least that you don’t disrespect their culture even if you’re not a connoisseur.
Thank you. You’ll use this one a lot. If you don’t, you’re not really traveling. This is the basis of politeness and appreciation. Knowing this one in the local language is and should be expected.
Where is…? This one is pretty critical for getting around. People will usually point and gesture so you don’t have to understand whatever they’re saying. You can use this when you know the name of the place you’re trying to go, when you’ve got a map, when you’re trying to get back to your hotel and, most importantly, to find the toilet. Toilet is nearly a universal word.
Hello. Some cultures have a formal and informal greeting. It’d be nice to know both, but if you can’t go for the formal one.
I’m sorry. Know this one for when you bump into someone or do something rude, etc. The person already probably thinks you’re a jerk, don’t insult him further by hurling foreign tongues his way.
Yes and No. I lumped these together as one because they go together. Sometimes these can be difficult. For example, in many Asian languages, there is not really a way to say these things. You’ll often use yes or no when someone who doesn’t speak much English asks you something in your native tongue. They’re making an effort, you can too. Also, sometimes the situation will tell you what someone is asking you, for example, if someone bends to pour tea and says something you don’t understand, they’re probably asking if you want some.
If you go beyond just those basics and learn some other pleasantries, you’ll get a lot more smiles. There are times when you’ll be sharing a few minutes with a local and may want to speak with them or you can see that they want to speak with you.
I like… …oranges. …your country. …this city. …blondes. …beer. The possibilities are endless.
I am from… …America. …the United States. …Georgia. …Atlanta. You’ll probably use this one a lot.
What is your name?/My name is… This one is pretty common as well. I lumped them together because usually you hear one and then the other. And you use one and then the other.
What do you do?/I am a… This is the same concept – small talk that people use. It’s more common to talk about your profession in the US than anywhere else but it can still be very useful as people try to figure out who you are.
How old are you?/I am… This one can come in handy too, as you try to chat up your new acquaintance.
Now for a bonus, the one phrase you shouldn’t use in the local language, even if you know it:
Do you speak English? There is a misconception that you need to learn this in the local language, if only to be polite. It seems counter intuitive until you consider that you’d only use that phrase if you know almost none of the local language and are speaking to a total stranger.
If the stranger speaks English, he’ll understand you anyway. If he doesn’t, you’ve gained nothing by asking in his language. Actually you’ve lost something. The stranger has no idea that you only know those four words and will probably assume that you know more of his language than he of yours. So it could silence someone who may otherwise engage you in a broken conversation – not the best of worlds, but better than you had before.
In fact, it seems that the only people who use this phrase the most are Americans. Most other English speakers – even if non-native – just launch into English and hope they’re understood. It seems rude, but it’s probably the best way to get your question answered fastest. If someone knows the answer, they’ll tell you. If they don’t, they won’t.
The language barrier is sometimes one of the hardest things to overcome when traveling. This is especially true if you are going to a region where you’ll experience many different languages and/or dialects. You can’t possibly learn each one. I have seen books before which are simply photographs of everyday things. The idea is that you point to something in it and can communicate that way. So if you want eggs for breakfast, you point to a photograph of eggs when you are ordering your meal.
But then there is the problem of how to prepare them, what side dishes you want, etc. So I figured it’d be a great idea to take a photo of every meal and build a small collection of foods you like. You can print out the pictures at an Internet café and carry them with you, or just show the person the picture on your camera.
It might even be possible to publish a book with local or regional foods, photos of the prepared dish, the name of it in the dialects of the areas where it is served, etc. You could probably have about a dozen that would cover 80-90 percent of the world. If anybody decides to do this, I’ll happily take some royalties or at least tag along for the research! You hear me, Anthony Bourdain?
I get this question a lot: “Where are you from?” People always seem surprised when I say that I’m from the South: “You don’t sound like you’re from the South.” Even others who have little accent say this. You would think that they would realize that you don’t have to speak with a stereotypical accent for your home region. So what the hell do they mean?
I suppose that they mean “You don’t sound like an idiot.” The South has been so stigmatized in popular media as a land of morons, inbred yokals, good ol’ boys, and incompetents. This image pervades society to the point that even educated people cannot break the stereotype.
But it gets worse. I have had the same reaction from people who have lived their life from the South! These are competent people who are smart enough to have risen in their company by merit. So are they surprised? Because the stereotype cuts the other way. If you are smart, well educated, ambitious, and talk confidently, you must be from the North (or the Pacific states).
Another of these types of statements is “He/She speaks so well” when referring to a Black person. This is really an unfinished sentence that ends “…for a Black man/woman.” The nation has been fighting stereotypes about Black Americans for nearly 150 years (I’m saying that it began at the abolition of slavery) so why is it so hard to believe that Barack Obama speaks well?
I’m not saying that these stereotypes are not well deserved. Many Black people don’t speak English well and don’t express themselves well in any language. Many Southerners are inbred yokals, ignoramuses, and good ol’ boys. I don’t begrudge anyone to have these stereotypes, they help us quickly ascertain peoples’ abilities and characteristics when we assign them to a group*. But I am dismayed by the fact that people are surprised by an individual who doesn’t behave according to a certain set of actions they have been assigned after only a brief encounter.
*I’m not saying that the perceived characteristics are accurate, just that it makes it easier to quickly determine how to interact with a person. Right or wrong, this is a useful tool. While the grouping is not necessarily based on skin color or accent, these two physical qualities certainly help determine which group we place individuals. Of course these are not the only stereotypes people may have, and they are not necessarily the only grouping criteria. For example, if a person is well dressed and manicured, these features may overshadow his race.