Certain populations are categorized as shy or timid. This may be justified. In the same respect, others have the reputations for being insular and provincial. Neither of which are traits that drifters like to attach to themselves. Of course when you find yourself outside of your local environment people may use generalizations before developing an informed opinion of you. While there are plenty of drifters who are urbane, sophisticated, amiable and pleasant, there exists a sizable population of ignoramuses that shock, apall, and embarass with the degree of their misinformation and lack of comportment.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Simple. There are two Koreas? Africa consists of 55 countries? Indian isn’t a language? Some mistakes are basic. They should have been avoided by being more attentive in elementary school. Social studies isn’t everyone’s savvy, fair enough. Moreover, political boundaries shift; the world does change. Yet beyond a certain point, ignorance is unpardonable. Case in point: I recently made the acquaintance of a young woman who is from San Diego. We were engaged in the niceties of conversation and she asked a third interlocutor where he was from. Wisconsin. Now, I could forgive her for not knowing where exactly Wisconsin was on the map. Some of the states have similar shapes and angles. Personally, I get Colorado and Wyoming mixed up at times. I plead guilty. However, the lady in question didn’t even know what Wisconsin was, as in she didn’t even know that it was a state. This is an American citizen who currently lives abroad. (Even worse, she was a high school teacher.) I cringed amongst the three of us. Had I been in the company of any non-Americans I would have been even more horrified. Perhaps I felt that would have been stained by her ignorance.
Knowing your place in the world and your proximity to others is important, if you want to better relate to the world around you. As is etiquette. No one is demanding that you become a polyglot. You can make a strong argument as to why Americans shouldn’t feel guilty about their overall level of monolingualism. Yet, when abroad it does help to learn the most basic of phrases: hello, thank you, can I add you on Facebook. Most are flattered by a foreigners attempt to take a step deeper into their culture. Today English is en vogue, so many don’t have an issue when communicating abroad. However, it pains me to see people speaking rapidly in heavily accented colloquial English and then wonder why their perceived humor doesn’t get across or why their order gets fucked up. I’m guilty of the later. My heritage as a Philadelphian has gifted me with a peculiar pronunciation of the word water. After arriving in India after a 14 hour flight I was a bit parched. At the hotel a friend ordered dinner and I ordered a water. Due to my accent my water arrived well after his meal. Surely my patience was strained, but I think I learned my own lesson. Further, personal space is another issue that one may have to compromise on depending on their travels. Yes New York is crowded, but the density of its crowds are in no match for the like of Mumbai or Tokyo. Know that your personal boundaries will be tested. Breathe deep. Secure your valuables though, don’t abandon your street smarts.
Now, what should a drifter do when they find him/herself in such disconcerting situations. If I don’t have any relationship with the offending individuals, I mind my own business. Better yet, I flee the scene. You must choose your own battles, and unless your compatriot is breaking the law it may be best to leave him to his own devices. If the culprit is someone whom I’m more intimate with, I will offer a correction. If the mistake is a factual one, such as our friend from San Diego, remedying the problem is fairly easy. Yet, if an American were unaware of the existence of two or more states than more extreme solutions may be needed.