Have you ever traveled to a new country and come back with impressions like: “The Thai people are so friendly,” or, “The Japanese are really conservative”?
For me, observing new cultures is half the fun of traveling. Returning home with an overall impression of a country and its people is what travel is all about, right?
Maybe not …
I have an American friend who moved to Lyon with her French boyfriend. After she’d been living there a few years, I asked her to spill the beans on the Frenchies. “Come’on, ‘fess up, what’s it like living there? Are French people really arrogant? Are the women beautifully dressed all the time? Does everyone eat cheese for breakfast? Do they snack on frog legs? Huh? Huh? Spill it. Cough up. Tell me the gossip on France.”
“I don’t really know what to tell you,” she said. “All of my friends here are very different. I guess I don’t really like to generalize people.”
Boy, did I feel like an asshole.
I’d just finished reading Almost French by Sarah Turnbull – an Aussie expat’s memoir about moving to France with her boyfriend and the cultural clashes that ensued. Turnbull, a journalist, shares her warts-and-all impressions of the French culture. Among her many experiences, she said she had trouble making female friends because, she reports, French women are competitive and they don’t really mingle together (read: they’re bitchy).
When I ran this past my friend in Lyon, she said she had no problem making friends with a wide range of women, from stylish to unstylish, arrogant to friendly.
Stereotyping is common in travel memoirs. Katrina Beikoff gives an expats view of China in No Chopsticks Required, revealing a number of unflattering details about Chinese culture. In First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria, Eve Brown-Waite recalls all sorts of interesting gossip about her time in Uganda such as how, according to her nose, the people of Uganda smell really bad. (Yes, you read correctly.)
One of my worst cultural experiences was in Tonga. Known as the ‘Friendly Islands,’ I had high expectations before sailing into the Vava’u group. While the islands were among the most stunning I’d seen in two years of traveling the South Pacific, the Tongans were reserved, quiet, and … well unfriendly.
But maybe they’re this way because of their stereotype? Named the Friendly Islands by Captain Cook, perhaps, over the years, their smile muscles have fatigued and they’ve grown tired of fake-laughing at everyone’s bad jokes? Friendliness isn’t enjoyable when it’s expected. (I know—I’ve worked in hospitality before.) Or maybe they’re just unfriendly by my own cultures standards?
Speaking of my culture, if I fit the Aussie cliché, I’d be wearing shorts, thongs (flip-flops), and a Chang Beer T-shirt stretched over a hefty beer gut. With a pint of beer in one hand and a buddy in the other, you’d find me obnoxiously drunk while chanting anthems at the top of my lungs in a completely inappropriate location, like a Buddhist temple.
I am not that Australian, and if someone automatically assumed I was, I’d have to smack them upside the head with an empty bottle of Foster’s. Generalizations suck when they come your way.
So where, exactly, is the line between cultural observations and stereotyping? What is gossip and what is bigotry? Is it irresponsible to report a culture as being ‘rude’ or ‘bitchy?’ If it’s wrong to call people ‘smelly’ or ‘cold,’ then is it also wrong to describe a country of 67 million people as ‘friendly’?
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.