Picture Donald Trump. I mean, I’m sorry, it’s not a pretty sight, but go ahead and think about him anyway.
Think about that orange Day-Glo tan, those pearly white teeth fixed in a grin, that heavily sedated possum perched atop his head. He’s a thing of beauty, isn’t he? The symbol of modern America, the personification of the idea that anyone – literally anyone – can make it to the top in the Land of the Free.
Trump is the multi-billionaire who still wants more power. He’s the incredibly popular politician with no sane policies who might just go all the way to the White House. He’s the typical American. He’s bold, he’s brash, and he doesn’t care what you think of him. He is the USA.
At least, it’s easy for people to think that way. It’s easy to see this loud, unlikeable guy on TV and assume that Trump is representative of all of his countrymen.
For many of us, the archetypal modern-day American is Donald Trump. And that’s largely because most of us haven’t actually met all that many Americans.
This is a large-scale example of something I’ve found that a lot of people do, even travellers: they make sweeping generalisations about nationalities and racial groups and even religious groups on the basis of just one or two people. Sometimes they’re people they’ve had a chance encounter with. Sometimes they’re people they’ve never met at all. All these people have to do is confirm a stereotype.
Hear an Englishman complaining about the weather? That’s it: the Poms are a bunch of whingers. Get taken on the scenic route by an Indian cab driver? They’re all shifty. Get a nice warm smile from the Thai ladies down at your local massage salon? They’re the friendliest people on Earth.
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This is a fairly normal human trait. When you don’t have a lot of experience with a certain people, you tend to make generalisations on the small brushes you have had with any of their number.
The funny thing, though, is when travellers continue to do this, even after they’ve visited a place.
We’re supposed to travel to broaden our minds, to temper our opinions with real-life experience. However, I’ve found that it only takes one or two incidents, either good or bad, during a stay in a country to completely colour your opinion of that nation and its inhabitants. One moment of kindness, or one act of malevolence, could stick with you for the rest of your life.
For so long I used to tell people that Hanoi was a dodgy city, full of scammers, because the first time I went there I was duped into parting with way too much money by what seemed like a fairly friendly young guy. He became my whole idea of northern Vietnam. It took a return journey to realise that wasn’t the case.
Of course if I hadn’t been hanging around Hoan Kiem Lake that afternoon looking lost and naive, I wouldn’t have met that kid, and I might have left Hanoi with a completely different opinion. So many of these experiences are down to luck.
Similarly, I met a guy in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro once who absolutely hated the place, couldn’t wait to get out, because he’d been robbed a few days beforehand. I never had any problems, and have loved the city ever since.
These are the fleeting glimpses of places that we allow to become representative of them as a whole. One French person refuses to speak English and the French are rude. One Japanese person helps you with directions and the Japanese are great.
Travel should be the antidote to these narrow beliefs. The idea of visiting places – say, with the United States – is that you get to see things with your own eyes and find out that hey, not all Americans are like Donald Trump. In fact they’re almost nothing like that fearsome mogul. They’re generous and funny and extremely friendly.
But it takes a long time to realise that. It takes months, if not years, to get a proper handle on what a whole people are like, the diversity among them, how their history shaped them, the way their public personas differ from their real selves. It takes work to spot these nuances and figure out what’s a quirk and what’s the norm.
As travellers, we can persuade ourselves that we’ve got all of this figured out, that with a short experience we’ve gained a real understanding of a country and its people – but really, it’s not much more superficial than turning on the news and seeing The Don there in all his shining, funny-haired glory and deciding that that’s what Americans are all about.
It’s not true. But it’s easy.
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