Dispatches from the Road: Anti-Americanism Abroad

Dispatches from the Road, France, Health & Safety — By on April 28, 2010 at 6:00 am

Our European Correspondent, Lost Girl Jessica Szewczuk, shares her eye-opening experience encountering a group of Anti-Americans during her recent visit to France.


“Shut up you stupid American.”

Talk about a wakeup call, right?

I came to Barcelona to study abroad in order to experience other cultures and become just a little more “worldly.” However, my recent trip to Nice on the French Riviera was a little more than I bargained for. Anti-Americanism is a term that we hear often on the news, and although I was aware of the increased tension between the French and US governments in recent years, I did not expect to experience it face-to-face.

My roommates and I went to Nice for Carnival, one of the biggest celebrations in France. Tourists are the number one target for pick pocketing and muggings. As a traveler in a foreign country, you always have to be aware of your surroundings because muggings will happen in an open square surrounded by dozens of people—trust me, I know.

After being surrounded by ten French boys in the main square, my roommates and I were thrown around, mocked and mugged. Although this sounds horrible, and trust me it was, the true horror didn’t come until after, when the five French police, who were only a few meters away, finally decided that they should probably step in. After being thrown to the ground and mugged, I’m sure you can imagine my state of hysteria. After screaming to the officer, “how could you not step in sooner,” do you know what I got?

“Shut up you stupid American. File a police report tomorrow.”

Yes, Dorothy, I am NOT in Kansas anymore.

Walking home we were pulled aside by two French girls who saw the entire incident. They told us that speaking English makes us a target, and we should probably not talk on our walk back to the hotel. This was when I realized just how naïve I’d been. The fact that I couldn’t even speak my own language because it made me a target simply blew my mind. My roommate, Lindsay, kept saying, “this would never happen in America.” Well, hello, we aren’t in America. The reality of the situation is this: the “stupid American” stereotype is very much present, not just in France, but in all of Europe and we need to realize what this can mean.

Opposition over the War in Iraq has caused increased anti-American sentiments among the French, and this has unfortunately added to the already established anti-American views. I asked my friend, Esther, a native Catalan, how Americans are viewed here in Barcelona. She told me that Americans are viewed as ‘stupid’, but not because we are dumb, but because we tend to think of ourselves as better than everybody else. She also explained that because most Americans do not make an effort to learn about other cultures, we are seen as easy targets to take advantage of. This happens a lot in taxis because some drivers don’t think we will catch on if they drive slower or up the fare unjustly.

So what do you do when faced with these situations? Be aware of the stereotype. My trip to France was a wakeup call that made me realize I’ve been living in a bubble; thinking that being an American would never make me a target. Now this is not to say by any means that Americans are hated by all French or everywhere in Europe. However, you have to be prepared to be met with some anti-American views. My advice?  Don’t be naïve and be aware that in some places you can be seen as a target based on where you are from. American does not always equal good.

Most importantly, if you ever do find yourself a victim to an anti-American remark, you cannot allow one bad experience to affect your opinion on the entire culture. From personal experience it’s easy to allow this to happen, but you need to remember you are in their country, which may or may not present conflicting views—besides, it’s all about the experience, right?

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  • Johny says:

    I never thought that French people could attack someone for talking English.If i ever go there i’m going to be careful.

  • Rhona says:

    Wow, that is pretty intense and damn scary. I personally have never encountered such treatment but I can say that American’s are not viewed very highly in Europe. I am Caandian by the way so I am unbiased. While in Berlin for a weekend, some newly acquired Germans friends I was hanging with asked me if I was American. I said no Canadian. They seemed really pleased and went on to say that they like Canadians better. When I asked why, they said we were nicer and less loud. I don’t know if this is true but it made me think.
    On another incident, an American friend of mine told a group of us, in Germany, that she often lies about being American and declares she is Canadian when people recognize her obvious non-real-German accent. She told us bold faced that most American’s don’t like Canadians but they will say they are Canadian to get better treatment. I had problems with both statements but that is beside the point here.
    I don’t think those French boys would have cared if the girls were necessarily American or Canadian. The bottom line is they spoke English. I hear time and again that French people especially, are not impressed with English speakers. This is true. I speak Montreal French (Canadian children learn French as a 2nd language) and it was ridiculed while I was in Paris and Strasborgh. It is just not the same and apparently, “not real French” as per European Francoises.
    While in Germany, certain parts, I knew not to open my mouth as speaking “not born in Germany German” is very easy to pick up and can be ridiculed however no one will hurt you for it. The most they will do is start speaking to you in English…if they know the language themselves which can be rare in the smaller villages-lucky where I lived.
    I will have to be even more careful if I step foot in France again with my Montreal french, english mother tongue self.

  • Tori says:

    Great article and in the same tone, not all foreigners (be it French, Spanish, British etc) should judge every American based on the motives of their country. It’s sad that the Americans who do travel abroad (study abroad, live abroad) who are making the effort to experience other culturals are getting ridiculed and singled out based on the whole of the United States.

  • Tori says:

    Great article and in the same tone, not all foreigners (be it French, Spanish, British etc) should judge every American based on the motives of their country. It’s sad that the Americans who do travel abroad (study abroad, live abroad) who are making the effort to experience other culturals are getting ridiculed and singled out based on the whole of the United States.

  • jonathan says:

    “My roommate, Lindsay, kept saying, “this would never happen in America.” that’s funny because we do that too.

  • Diane O says:

    I spent 4 1/2 years living in London and Bangalore with my husband and son, and we did a lot of traveling during that time. We’re pretty good travelers— we do our best to blend in, we’re not loudmouths, we don’t block the street, we pull over to read our maps—so I guess we don’t look like stereotypical American tourists. But I do remember cases where people who had been friendly to us shut right down once they found out we were Americans.

    Jessica’s right when she tells us not to take it personally. (FYI, it really was somewhat better before Iraq.) But I would add, do your best not to contribute to the stereotype! Try to blend in as much as you can, don’t expect “American” standards or amenities (didn’t you leave home to experience something different?), read up on a place before you get there so you can approach it with some intelligence, ask questions respectfully. And please, PLEASE keep your voice down!

  • Dee Andrews says:

    I think one of the best things about traveling and experiencing other cultures are these moments… sometimes they’re awful to experience (and I’m thankful you are safe,) but they are opportunities to learn… how others perceive us Americans, how we perceive ourselves.

    Realize this does happen in America, everyday. Perhaps not to Americans of European descent, but I’m guessing Americans of African descent or Arab descent could tell you stories like this that happen to them every day. It was only several weeks ago that President Obama quietly ended a policy subjecting passengers from 14 countries, most of them Muslim, to additional scrutiny at airports. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/19/us/politics/19muslim.html?scp=1&sq=arab%20searches%20at%20airports%20countries&st=cse

    I am sorry for your experience; I’m sure it was terrifying. I do appreciate your post and the dialogue and conversations it will hopefully start in America and abroad. No one should be stereotyped for language, ethnicity, religion, sex, or the politics of their country.

  • Joya says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. Pretty scary but a wake-up call for the rest of us. I agree that we just can’t be naive and always be on guard but not let it get to us and ruin our trip. That’s all we can do until we can actually have conversations with people and they get to know us.

  • Michael says:

    It’s frustrating hearing about the experience for sure.

    Maybe I am in lala land, but I believe it doesn’t matter if you are in another country, it doesn’t matter even if the two countries are at war, police officers are obligated to step in and stop something like that. Citizens are nothing more..they don’t represent the government, the policies of the government, or anything therein related!

    I guess I can’t say for sure, that it wouldn’t happen in the United States, but it is mind boggling imagining some illegal immigrant who doesn’t speak English to be mugged or raped or something by a group of obvious nationals, with police officers doing nothing, standing by, and then telling the victim she is stupid after! I say this example because I live in Utah and we have a huge illegal immigrant population…

    I just wish the entire United States, and the world would have my mentality, and some on this site…people are people..forget where someone is from, what language they speak, what food they like…people are people. With the same emotions you share. Love, stress, happiness, anger, anxiety, everything…

    We don’t need to love everyone, hold hands, and prance around rainbows..but we should at least provide everyone with mutual respect.

    On a side note in response to someone who posted something about American’s not liking Canadians…um I know this person is your friend, and you are likely to take your friends opinion over mine (a stranger) but that is ENTIRELY not true. Canadians are rad. Were like brothers and sisters..Canadian citizens to me are like my siblings who went off to college and I haven’t seen in a while!

    And I can guarantee you everyone shares something similar…Americans do make a lot of jokes about hating Canada, but its all in good nature, we jest. Just like a brother to a sister. Ask around to every American you run into, I’d say 95% of America likes Canada, the 5% that don’t already are racist bigots and hate everything else anyways.

  • Freddy says:

    Hi Kristen,

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

    I agree with your term of “being in a bubble” as it is probably what describes the best this situation.

    I think the Iraqi conflict is not to be taken as the background of this problem. I live in Australia and many people here share the view that Americans are little too oblivious to the cultural difference there are between US and another country.

    @Joya: be on your guard might be a little strong in general, I think being aware is more appropriate. But true for any crowded/busy place in Europ. Pickpockets all around.

    @ Tori: couldn’t agree more. I know so many American friends who are bored of being constantly singled out because the white house external policies. Although I must it got much better since Barack O came in. Might just have been a spin of good PR but at least it seems to work!

  • Jack says:

    I sure wouldn’t want to be an American in Greece right now. Americans are really hated there right now. My brother was in Greece in April. Everyone from the citizens to the government blames the US for the collapse of their nation. What else is new, I guess. When all else fails, blame an American tourist.

  • Heathre says:

    A good book to read is The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.

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