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In Defence of the “Uncultured American”

Citizens of the U.S. face exorbitant international travel costs compared with those living in Europe. Taking that into consideration, is the stereotype of the “uncultured American” really fair?

When I was seven years old, I thought I was going to London, England.

Not only did I think I was going, but via a boat. My departure location? Detroit, Michigan. Impressive, I know. For those of you unfamiliar with Detroit’s whereabouts, let me confirm for you that it’s nowhere close to Europe, or England, or even the Atlantic ocean. In fact, Michigan is smack in the heart of the midwestern United States.

Now, back to my groundbreaking voyage. I was on a trip to Detroit visiting my grandmother, who resides there. Like so many other seven year old American children, I had an obsession with England and, more specifically, the royal family. Thus, I suppose my parents thought it would be funny to convince me we were traveling across the border to London, England- as opposed to London, Canada, our actual destination. Needless to say, I didn’t find the joke funny then, nor do I today, which is why it clearly still haunts me. 

Growing up after that, I had something of a chip on my shoulder.

Dramatic, perhaps, but I was “gutted” at the time, as the English say. For someone who’s always loved traveling as much as I do, the fact that there were places out there where people lived so differently to me was intensely perplexing. The prospect of actually traveling to said places, however, seemed too far-fetched  to grasp. I knew the odd family here or there that took lavish vacations to London, or Paris, or Tokyo. I knew some children of immigrants in my classes at school who traveled internationally every year to visit family, and that my parents had jetset to Europe on their honeymoon. Yet, despite these confirmations that those places existed, the reality is that international travel is beyond the means of the vast majority of Americans. 

USA Passport and Flag

You might have to work hard to get me to defend my homeland in most cases, but I struggle when I hear Americans receive criticism for being ‘uncultured.’

Ask a European to name the traits they think of when they picture the stereotypical American, and on the rather unflattering list is something that comes up all too often: “uncultured”. In some cases, yeah, we could work harder to stay worldly and not act so ignorant and cringy when we do make it off the continent. However, more often than not, all we’ve ever known is America- unless you’re in the minority that is financially gifted enough to drop ridiculous sums of cash on travel each year. 

For the last three years, I’ve personally found myself in an extremely fortunate position. In meeting Tieran, I’ve been able to travel to places I wouldn’t have dreamed of going prior. As someone who grew up taking domestic family vacations, amazing though they were, I find myself going in to each new international destination with a more appreciative lens. Wandering across each new border is a privilege, and I view the attitude ‘everyone should get out and travel the world’ or risk being branded as uncultured with a new level of contempt. While I concur that at some point everyone should get the opportunity to travel abroad, I also respect that many of the people where I come from simply can’t. 

In many ways, I believe the ‘travelers’ culture’ is flawed.

There seems to be an underlying competitiveness of ‘who can travel the most?’, or ‘who can go to the most unconventional places?’. While in theory these attitudes can encourage one to broaden their horizons, I do feel many travel bloggers or influences carry condescending undertones regarding people who can’t or don’t travel. 

After Tieran and I discussed the idea for this article- that someone shouldn’t face criticism for being uncultured just because they haven’t been able to travel- it became clear to me that perhaps there is a level of ignorance in those who claim to be the ‘most cultured’ that they don’t know is there. 

Most middle-class Americans simply can’t afford to vacation overseas regularly.

I’ve learned since spending lots of time in (real) England how strange this might seem to Europeans. In fact, just 42% of Americans own a passport, compared to 83% of people in England and Wales. As an American, it isn’t hard to figure out why this is. It’s not that we don’t have the desire to explore abroad, it’s that travel of any kind is a privilege that requires one primary resource: money. Travel is expensive, and for Americans, going overseas is a fortune. The average round trip ticket from Chicago to London costs anywhere between $400-$1,000. Chances are you’re not vacationing on your own, so multiply that by two. You have children? Multiply it by four. This leaves out the cost of accommodation, transportation, food, and activities. By this point, you’re out thousands of dollars. All of that for one or two weeks to experience a different culture. Worth it? Some would say absolutely. Realistic? Maybe not. 

America is also unique in the sense that the country is so vast geographically.

We have almost every type of climate and landscape domestically. Colorado and Vermont for skiing, California and Florida for beaches, New Mexico and Nevada for desert; the list goes on. In Europe, this kind of scenery change usually happens between countries. When I first came to England, I was shocked by how many Brits ski; each winter, they flood into France, Austria and Italy to hit the slopes, and it can still cost them less than it does for Chicagoans to hop on a flight to Colorado or Montana to find good snow and some elevation. I look at it this way: country-hopping for Europeans is similar to state-hopping for Americans, with one major difference: culture. 

The distance from Maine to California is only about five hundred miles less than the distance from New York to London. However, the kicker is that while the scenery might change from America’s sea to shining sea, the culture remains more-or-less the same. Despite the physical distance and three hour time zone variation, there are plenty of Californians who sound indistinguishable from Mainers to the untrained ear. Travel across that same distance on Europe’s insanely cheap budget airlines, the likes of which are non-existent in the U.S., and you’ll traverse a tapestry of different religions, dozens of languages and rich histories.

While I can only speak as an American about international travel, the cycle tour has helped confirm that there are countless other places and cultures that face similar struggles regarding its financial burdens.

The stereotype that Americans are uncultured are just that: a stereotype. Like any other generalization, of course there are those of us who are, but it’s imperative to remember that not all of us have the same opportunities. Travel isn’t a competition, and just because someone doesn’t have the means to visit as many countries as you doesn’t mean they lack an outward view of the world. Traveling has taught me far more about my own country and way of life than anything else. It’s reminded me that as wonderful as exploring the the world might be, it’s easy to brush aside the beauty that surrounds us and our own cultures. I try to focus on the fact that as bleak and boring as the flat, endless rows of cornfields in my rural midwestern home state might seem, the grass is always greener. Even Norwegians travel abroad, and what could they possibly be looking for?

You may also be interested in:  Traveling in the Trump Era

Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!

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1 year ago

Miriam, I agree with this article100%. I trust I shall never be accused of calling Americans uncultured, as there are many examples to the contrary. I also question the assumption that travel makes you more cultured. It depends on how you travel. Many “travellers” visit countries where they only visit airports, beaches, restaurants etc. What culture? Look forward to more articles by you.

1 year ago

An insightful appraisal….and a most enoyable read. More from Miriam please……