By Randy Johnson
Many Americans are afraid of encountering dangerous anti-American sentiments abroad. Other nationalities can have similar fears, also derived from publicized incidents of terrorism. I have heard many of the stories and some first-hand accounts of close calls, but frankly, it has never been a problem for me.
Maybe this is just a difference in perception. Sure, I have had dozens, maybe hundreds of people say negative things to me about my country and about Americans. Some of them were western travelers. But this is not a big deal, and I don't take it personally. Often I can appreciate their complaints and the fact that they are often the result of national priorities or biased information. In fact, it is normal; I have plenty of negative things to say about my country, too. In short, I hardly notice it. I don't get into arguments, nor do I vehemently agree with criticisms; I avoid discussions on the topic.
I am an American; it's my home. But on the Road, I feel no particular need to defend its government or people. I had one taxi driver in Pakistan berate me loudly during most of a short trip. "America! What's wrong with you Americans?" The real problem was, "Why won't the American Embassy give me a visa?" My only reply was "I don't know." Smile, shrug your shoulders, be nice, and you can avoid most belligerent situations.
But this is quite different from feeling that your personal safety is in jeopardy because of your nationality. It does happen, and I have heard a few personal accounts of altercations. I have witnessed a couple of anti-imperialist demonstrations, felt nervous, and kept my distance. Maybe I'm incredibly lucky, but I have never yet felt physically threatened or intimidated by it. People are always asking me, "Didn't you have any trouble being an American in Syria, Nicaragua, China, Laos, South America, etc.?" I'm sorry, but the answer is "no".
Sometimes it is surprising. In Nicaragua, during the Contra conflicts, I fully expected to hide behind some other identity. But in my first days, I was brave. A local man on a bus turned and asked me if I were Cuban; there were many Cuban advisers and teachers in Nicaragua. No, I said, I was a Norte Americano (American). "Ahh," he said, "We do not like your government at all! But the Americans are good people. Welcome to Free Nicaragua!" I was flabbergasted! Not only was I not in for big trouble, but this simple Third World man had shown a cultural sensitivity that most Americans are lacking -- the ability to separate the actions of a distant country's government from the nature of its individual citizens. The bus did not descend on me en mass. The word got around and some people smiled and greeted me. Perhaps a few others spat and muttered -- I don't know, but I was in no danger.
The British are another favorite target of bad feelings, and encounter more visa restrictions than Americans do. But Israelis are perhaps the most officially discriminated against; there are precious few countries where they are even allowed to enter, and often with restrictions.
If you are seriously frightened by the prospect of anti-Americanism, anti-Colonialism, or anti-Your Country sentiment causing a serious problem for you, just go out and get yourself a Canadian flag or lapel pin, (just ask any Canadian traveler, they have dozens!) and pretend to be someone else. Be aware, but don't worry about it unnecessarily. In my opinion, you attract more risks by the way you act, dress, and the gear you carry, than by your nationality.