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My Big, American Family

Crazy, embarrassing, and oh-so fun.

Here they are again. You can hear them a mile away, like a siren.

They’re unavoidable.

AMERICANS.

My eyes roll to the back of my head. They come in like a storm cloud- a pulsing, absorbing blob of short shorts and flip flops and ponytails and- the worst- shirts with Hawaiian print. They could be in Switzerland in January, and they’ve still got the Hawaiian print. They are an unstoppable force. They dig into their pockets for two minutes fishing out their shiny blue passports. They speak slowly – and loudly – to everyone they meet. They carry fanny packs because they’ve read on the Internet that there’s theft and they need to watch their money.

I sink deep, down, low into my chair. Maybe if I don’t make eye contact, they won’t see me. Maybe they’ll think I’m a Portuguese local, hiding at the café in Europe. Maybe they’ll think I’m Cuban, at a beach in Haiti. Maybe they’ll think I’m…well, anything but them. Because once you’re affiliated, you can’t get out.

I used to always think this way about Americans abroad. I avoided them like, to put the good cliché to use, the plague. When I heard or saw them (though, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, you tend to hear them before you see them), I walked away. Fast. I was determined to blend in. To experience the true thickness of a culture through its own eyes. I know I’m an American. And over the years, the miles and the experiences, never have I been more proud to be one. But there is a difference between being an American and being, well, that American. That American that reaffirms all stereotypes of the United States. That American that somehow makes people forget that there are thousands of cultures, identities and histories in the USA; that American that makes people think there is only one kind of American (the loud kind). And that irks me.

Yet I have also learned to love Americans abroad because they are, and always will be, my family. They are the big, extended family that you are totally embarrassed of. The cranky old people, the crazy aunts and uncles, the rambunctious kids. They’re loud and they’re asking questions that embarrass you to death and for some reason they always seem like they are in a spotlight, that all attention is focused on them. You pray under your breath that no one notices that you’re associated. You move quietly so as not to disturb them or set off any alarms.

But, then again, there’s a little piece of you, no matter how deep down, how tucked away, how locked under layers and layers of embarrassment, that’s glad that they’re here. Just like family. These people know where you come from. And they’re in your club. They shop at your grocery stores. They eat, more or less, your food. They bargain on Ebay. They already know so much about you, and they don’t even know you. And there’s tons of them, and as dumb or as inexperienced or as unknowledgeable as they may seem, they will protect you.

When I am abroad, I try to remember this as I regularly cross other Americans in my path. They may be “outing” me with their comments on the weather or their pleas for directions in my constant quest to blend in with the culture at hand. They may discomfit me with their strange desire to chat even in a crowded and silent room. But at the end of the day, they will always accept me with open arms when I need them. And that is why I am charmed by my big, American family.

Beth Santos
Founder and CEO of Wanderful, creator of the Women in Travel Summit, enthusiastic lover of ice cream, picnics and art.

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