“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, apostle Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians
As my family and I moved into our Paris apartment, our departing guests from North America informed us that the place lacks good curtains, and the bathroom definitely need an upgrade, but they added, “Although we aren’t used to this, you’ll have fun in Paris.” Right!
I travel a lot. Generally, two types of travelers annoy the locals the most: Mainland Chinese and North Americans. I’m going to talk a bit about traveling in Europe in this blog.
When the two annoying groups travel, these are the stereotypical ways they fail to respect and appreciate local customs and history. Here’re some tips to help blend in so that when we’re not the sore thumb that stand out among tourists.
First, don’t talk loudly in your own tongue. One of the most annoying thing is to listen to my fellow Americans give uninformed opinions about local customs. In one particular instance, I heard a trainload of Americans chanting “USA, USA, USA” as they passed the Statue of Liberty, probably not knowing that the giant statue sitting in NYC harbor was actually a gift of friendship from the French who have always been a good ally to the US. The chant was one of those moments that I felt the immense shame of being American. I notice that in most relatively classy places, it’s best to lean over to talk to your dining buddies instead of carrying on in English in the normal tone simply because hearing another tongue is annoying for locals. I was having tea in Le Train Bleu. I notice even the locals lean forward to talk just out of courtesy to the other diners. A toned down volume is the best way to go in public places anywhere.
Second, learn to speak some local language. If you can’t, at least try not to butcher its pronunciation. When we land in a place, we should at least know how to ask someone in the local language, “Do you speak English?” I find that most people are very friendly, to a fault, AS LONG AS WE ASK HUMBLY. A lot of Americans just go right up to people and start speaking English. I find that a lot of countries I visit, the locals speak some English. Many actually speak excellent English, almost without any accent (e.g. some Germans and French). I don’t patronize them by saying, “Oh, you speak such good English.” I just speak normally or maybe slow down a tad just knowing that they aren’t native speakers but please, stop butchering the local language. They show enough respect to speak to us in English, the least we can do is to try to speak their language. Sometimes, knowing that we’ve made the best effort would earn local good will. And for goodness’ sake, “thank you” in French is pronounced “meahk-see” not “mercy”. “Thank you” in Italian is “glot-zee” not “graaaacee.” Mercy me! Goodness gracious. In Spain, their “c’s” are like “th’s” if it’s between letters. For example, “garcias” (the Spanish word for “thanks”) is pronounced “gra-the-as” in Spain. This is different from the Mexican pronunciation of “gracias” with more of an “s” sound.
Third, learn to dress appropriately. This is a big beef with me. Most who can afford to holiday in Europe can afford to dress appropriately. We can always spot Americans because they’re hands down, the worst dressed tourists of the bunch. Typically, we dress in lousy Nike t-shirts that don’t match our equally lousy basketball shorts along with our odd looking sneakers (what the British call “trainers”). We then expect all the places to be casual. Usually, we stand out like TWO sore thumbs. In most establishments, people simply don’t dine in tank tops and t-shirts and sneakers. Rather, people dress in some kind of suit jackets or dressed shoes. Smart casual is the rule. It’s best to be overdressed than underdressed. No matter how bad off we are financially, if we can holiday in Europe or in many places in Asia like Hong Kong or Tokyo, we can at least afford to keep ONE pair of well cared for dressed shoes (as my buddy Keith the fashionista remarks).
Third, don’t expect others to take on our lifestyle. Every culture has expectations. In the US, restaurants have waiters that want to rush you in and out quickly. They want to earn money because time is money. Not so in Europe. In Europe, waiters give customers plenty of time to order. So, we have to adjust for more time to eat. Supper is serious business with Europeans. They don’t rush it. They dress up to meet with friends as an important social occasion. They don’t just get together to stuff their faces with high calorie junk they serve up in American restaurants. If we’re in a rush, we shouldn’t expect the locals to be in a rush also. They don’t have bad customer service. They just work at a different pace and define “service” differently because the locals value sitting down over a meal more than most Americans. There’re pluses in adjusting because waiters in France don’t come by to ask that intrusive question just to ask, “How’s your food?” In the US, that’s extremely annoying because we all know that the waiter doesn’t give a rip about how the food is. The US waiters often ask that question before we even dig into the first piece of the main course just to get that question out of the way. Not so in Europe. When they come by to ask, it’s usually after we’ve had a few bites. They notice details like that. Once again, different cultures, different expectations. We adjust to theirs. We shouldn’t expect them to adjust to ours.
Fourth, learn to listen and research local customs. Even admit we know nothing! “Back in China, we …” “Back in the US, we …” are two of the most annoying phrases I hear. Please, if you want to go back to China or the US so much, don’t come over. It’s imperative to research local customs. If we don’t know, instead of saying what we think, asking a question may be the best way to go. Say something like, “I notice you … can you explain why?” instead of “These people call appetizer entrée. It’s so confusing …” Say “What’re the in-season fashion colors” instead of saying, “These people dress funny.” How can we say OTHERS dress funny when Paris, Rome, Milan, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are the fashion capitals of the world? To them, WE dress funny (if funny dressing has any humorous at all). One big custom adjustment we have to make is the rhythm for dining in culture. In continental Europe, dinner is very late. Hardly any restaurant is open at 5 pm. People might also have later lunch. The rhythm is just different. Assume nothing unless you’ve researched the local customs. We should adjust to their vocabulary and customs. We shouldn’t expect them to adjust to ours.
Fifth, be friendly but not stupid friendly. One special characteristic of Americans is the “smile”. I’m not talking about the slightly shy smiley “bonjour” I say to my neighbors every morning. I’m talking about the stupid oh-look-I-found-my-puppy grin followed by “Hey, hello, how’re YOU doing?” Different cultures have different verbal space with strangers. Our superficial “How are you doing?” just doesn’t work with strangers in a different country. Honestly, how often do we even ask that to fellow Americans without caring how they’re doing? If you don’t believe me, try this. Next time, someone asks you how you’re doing, as a rule, say, “I’m doing really bad.” See what happens. We do theatrical friendliness as conversational fillers. Even our grin is often a non-verbal filler. Fillers don’t work for many cultures. Look for verbal and non-verbal cues that work. Observe, and turn off that crazy grin.
I think in order to travel well, we need to have this “off button” for our Americanism. We need to turn down our culture much more and that’s just basic courtesy. Tart tartare is better than humble pie any day. How does this relate to Christians?
One of the most influential Christian is the apostle Paul. Paul’s greatness came from his ability to adapt. He could blend into local culture even as a Jew (even without losing his Jewish distinctions). That’s why he had such a positive influence in the world. Many Christians can learn so much from Paul when traveling. Many Americans can learn so much from Paul. Paul was an ambassador for the gospel. He knew that in order to represent properly his gospel, he had to adapt to local cultures. In order to represent the gospel or our country, we too need to know when to push the “off” button on our own culture. Paul had a goal in mind, and that goal caused him to have flexible perspectives. With flexible perspectives, we buy ourselves potentials to have positive influence, sometimes even for the sake of the gospel.
As I moved into my apartment, I found out that the curtains were indeed a tad old, but the view off the street is spectacular (okay, I’m an urbanite. I love street views). Although our hot water tank didn’t work perfectly, our hostess was gracious in providing us immediate help for early move-in and for when we locked ourselves out of our flat. We also live in an area where we can access relatively affordable but excellent food. We can look at the beautiful architecture just outside our window knowing that our building is probably as old as the United States. These are things a perfectly new curtain can’t buy. Once again, everything is a matter of perspective.