Reading headlines and watching the news, it’s easy to assume that many people across the globe don’t like Americans. But that’s more a function of political expediency for the rulers of some nations, an attitude not always shared by the people they represent.
As I’ve stated in an earlier column, Americans are highly respected, even in places like Iran.
Proof of this were the experiences of two children of Clipper staff member Becky Ginos, who last week returned from some amazing adventures abroad.
Her son Derek and his wife Brenda (plus four of her close relatives) began a rather exotic world adventure in Greece, home to his father’s ancestors.
Despite that nation’s storied history, modern-day Greece appears to be quite Americanized, with most public signs and restaurant menus in both Greek and English, Hollywood movies jam video stores, while American popular music seems to be playing everywhere — featuring the same U.S. artists we listen to here.
He and his wife never had to bother even asking people if they understood English because virtually everyone did.
He also felt completely safe and welcome as he and his group traveled around.
In fact, when local Greeks learned they were from the United States, the usual response was, “America is great!”
That attitude even extended to their visit to heavily Muslim Egypt. While he noticed that Egyptians may have resented former Pres. George W. Bush, that attitude didn’t extend to the American people, which they respected and admired.
But Egyptians absolutely appear to love Pres. Barack Obama. Derek frequently heard, “Obama is for peace.” They see him as working to build bridges rather than erecting barriers. Egyptians believe Obama will help build up their nation rather than trying to contain their country or limit its aspirations.
Tourism also affects how Egypt interacts with the world because over the past five years it has become the nation’s No. 1 industry.
Which means that country is both more accepting of other religions and less willing to jeopardize relations with Western nations.
Projecting an image of safety and stability is also paramount because even the hint of danger can devastate the tourist trade.
That’s why Derek and Brenda’s group of six was assigned their own bodyguard from Egypt’s tourist police. Paid for by the Egyptian government, their guard— a man in a neat business suit carrying a machine gun — traveled with them everywhere they went for three days.
That actually had an odd effect on the group — grateful for the bodyguard’s protection but a little uneasy that one was required.
Although American culture was less evident in Egypt than in many other nations, dollars traded freely there as a fully accepted currency circulated in tandem with their own.
And for a Muslim nation, Egypt seemed quite relaxed and respectful of other religions. The nation is home to a large number of Christian churches, and tourists were welcome to visit and take photos inside local Islamic mosques.
The group’s real goal had been to visit South Africa, which they toured just before flying to Egypt. It, surprisingly, seemed the most like home for Derek and his group.
Johannesburg was a bustling, modern city with large shopping malls and all the conveniences Americans are used to. Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were everywhere, and stores were loaded with familiar brands such as Kellogg’s cereals, Coca-Cola, Nestle’s chocolate, and many other common products.
Most people are easy to communicate with because the nation’s schools require students to study both Zulu and English. The biggest tip-off that this was a foreign country, however, was the abject poverty clearly evident in various neighborhoods within the city. Just outside of town were pockets of slums and shanty towns, while about 60 miles out, the countryside reverted to people living in villages with huts and thatched roofs.
Despite Johannesburg being approximately three-quarters black, Derek and his group found the people to be warm and friendly to them, with the scars of the former Apartheid not unduly visible.
White residents, however, still seemed to harbor a little resentment at being forced to give up some of their lands to people who then did not know how to properly manage them.
As the group journeyed into the countryside, the population became almost exclusively black — with villagers clinging to Zulu customs and worship.
For Derek and his wife’s family, the adventure taught them that there were really two South Africas: the urban, modern world found in the major cities, juxtaposed with the rural, impoverished villages that dominated the rest of the landscape.
For these people, it may take an extensive time before they enter the modern economy of their urban cousins.
Daughter Natalie, meanwhile, noticed the extensive use of English in Thailand. All of the highway markers and other signs were in both Thai and English. However, English is mostly spoken at better hotels and restaurants. Many people know just a few words, but enjoy practicing their English.
Many Thais were especially excited about Natalie and her companions because they see so few American tourists there. People everywhere flocked to take their photographs.
As her brother noted in Greece, American pop culture and music were very popular in Thailand, and it was surprising to see people dancing to the same music Americans enjoy here.
Natalie observed that the Thai people are very kind and always ready to help.
If she spoke even a word or two in Thai, they were very pleased and willing to assist with anything they could.
The culture, however, is notably different. Clocks were scarce, suggesting a slower pace. Religious differences were quite distinct. Every home seemed to have a beautiful spirit house to protect it. Also, there were steps into rooms, meant to trip evil spirits.
Despite these differences, their observations imply that the “ugly American” we read about decades ago, may no longer exist.
My own travels in Latin America, Europe and the South Pacific have led me to believe that America is seen as a beacon of hope, not a nation of despots.
And from what Derek and Natalie discovered, that seems to apply to Asia and Africa, as well.