A stereotype about Americans, amongst other things, is that we are friendly. I know. Terrible. It’s true! We are friendly! But, in reality, our friendliness only reaches so far, particularly with new people. Americans are known for our “empty invites” like “Call me! I’d love to catch up!” but that call seems to drift off into the ether once made. Sure, I’m happy to chat with the person behind me in the line at the grocery or to exchange a cheeky glance with someone on the London underground(which is VERY friendly for the staid, “let’s all agree to pretend no one is smashed up against each other by never, ever making eye contact” situation) but that’s about it. If you’ve even traveled to the US or UK for business then you have probably been on the receiving end of this tendency. You may get a drink after work with your workmates but, otherwise, you are on your own. Our version of friendly can be viewed as a teensy-tiny bit fake.
It’s because of this charming attribute that, when I travel abroad, it always takes me by surprise when a colleague would invite me to dinner at their home. Were they serious or were they just being polite? There are lots of times when I’ve been aggressively invited to be henna tattooed or to visit a gift shop that I sense is filled with not “gifts” in which you need to give the polite but very firm “No.” To this day, it does still feel a little awkward to say yes, but I understand that it is because of my culture and, to understand their culture better, I need to be bold! Its a work in progress sometimes – especially with the added element of having Mr. Yorkshire with me! However, I have learned to never say “No” when someone is generous to enhance my travel experience.
People are, in general, proud of their countries and love to show them off – just like I am about the USA & London. Usually, people are initially reserved with people that they do not know and not as causal with their hospitality. In some parts of the world, Americans are still a curiosity and, luckily, some people love a curious American. An openness appears within people when they see that you are genuinely interested and appropriately polite /harmless. When the offer is made, it is usually sincere.
For example, when I was in India for business, my colleague graciously offered to be my tour guide and came to Mumbai from Bangalore two days early so we could sightsee together. Was it daunting to think of spending two full days with someone from another culture that I had never actually met in person yet? YES! But I certainly wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to see Elefante Island with a “local”.
Numerous times I’ve had strangers(usually women) share their food with me which, to this day, makes me a little shy but I’ve never regretted taking the offering. How else would I learn to eat thali with my hands like a local or that the lettuce of Thai green papaya salad is the utensil to get the crunchy, juicy bites into your mouth! Asian pear, pani puri, wild boar sausage, boba tea – all foods that I tried for the first time because someone offered me a taste. Yes, I have taken candy from a stranger! There! I said it!
Saying yes doesn’t just apply to bites here and there. I’ve been invited to go salsa dancing with the hotel desk staff in Cartagena. I have let Singaporeans, South Asians, and Japanese order my dinner for me. I have been offered to spend the weekend in a restored farmhouse in southern France. I’ve been pulled into a living room/garage in Havana because they saw me dancing in the street (there is definitely a dancing/eating theme forming here!) and I didn’t run away! Say SI! Lean IN! BE THE EXPLORER.
I’ll end with my favorite story of all time of saying “yes to the request”. It is a story from my very first trips abroad. I turned 18 while touring Europe with a singing group and band. We traveled all over the northern continent including a very quaint village outside of Strasbourg, France that, to this day, I have no idea what it was named. We sing in the town square in the middle of summer as part of a small festival. We sang in this small village that was, basically, the same size as my French named hometown – Bellefonte. I had a brief solo in a song that launched our big choreographed number that was always a hit. After we finished and were milling around the square, a woman and her small child caught my eye. They were both watching me, the little girl with her face buried in her mother’s leg but one eye turned in my direction. The mother speaks to her softly in French and points to me. Eventually, the mother says in English “she wants to hug you”. What else could I do but squat down to lean in with my arms wide open for my little french fan as she ran into my hug? My heart still melts just thinking about it. How could I have ever said “No”?
Now, if that doesn’t make you feel like all is right in the world, then I don’t know what will.