A foreign visitor to the United States once informed me, with great sincerity, that Americans are much more polite to one another than the citizens of his home country. I was pleased to hear this (See? Foreigners don’t all hate us!) — until he added that such courtesy is, of course, a life-saving precaution for Americans, since it’s well-known that everyone in the United States carries guns and will shoot at the slightest provocation.
How, I asked, had he formed the belief that all Americans carry guns?
His embassy had told him so, he explained.
This was hardly the most outlandish stereotype of Americans I’ve ever encountered, but I was surprised to hear that the source was a foreign embassy rather than, say, Hollywood. Then again, I don’t spend much time reading the travel advice provided by foreign embassies to their U.S.-bound citizens. For one thing, such advice is rarely in English, and as a dutiful American, I have taken pains to avoid fluency in other languages. For another thing, I live here, so I already know exactly how weird we are.
Still, I was curious: When foreign countries offer travel advice and warnings to their citizens en route to the United States, what exactly do they say?
Thanks to Google Translate — triangulated with several other free online translation services — I was able to trawl through the websites of a dozen countries’ ministries of foreign affairs, looking for advice to U.S.-bound travelers. Much of what I found was anodyne (the usual details concerning visa requirements, time zones, currency, and electrical voltage), but some of it was more than a little odd — often in ways that revealed as much about the preoccupations of other societies as it revealed about the United States.
Here’s what they really think of us:
The United Kingdom:
These people speak English, God bless ‘em. And in keeping with the Special Relationship, our friends in the U.K. keep a pretty stiff upper lip about the United States and its failings. They do, however, have some concerns about the safety of our roads: In the United States, they advise British travelers, there are “10.7 road deaths per 100,000 of population … compare[d] to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population….” Also, American “medical treatment is expensive.” Aside from that, the U.K. Foreign Office’s main concern is that Americans just won’t appreciate the wacky humor for which the British are justly famed; British travelers in the United States, they warn, should refrain from making “flippant remarks about bombs or terrorism, especially when passing through US airports.”
The French aren’t so sure about the American sense of humor, either. Like the British, they warn their citizens to “répondre avec sérieux” in all encounters with law enforcement, lest they find themselves with “très sérieux” problems; in particular, they advise, “[you should] avoid jokes about the contents of your baggage.” In fact, French travelers should probably refrain from all attempts at humor while in the United States, particularly when speaking to members of the opposite sex, since even comments and jokes “considered trivial” in Latin countries could land the unwary French tourist in court facing charges of “harcèlement sexuel.” In addition to having no sense of humor about sexual harassment, Americans don’t permit French women to wear “le monokini” at the beach, and become annoyed when men wander into the women’s bathroom.
In general, the French government recommends that its citizens “adopt a reserved manner with persons of the opposite sex” while in the United States. This is in part because of American prudishness, and in part because — you guessed it — “possession of firearms is permitted and common” in the United States. French tourists are thus advised to “keep your calm and sang-froid” in all circumstances. The French have been paying attention to Ferguson and McKinney, too: When dealing with the police, “it is imperative … not to raise your voice and [to] avoid sudden or aggressive gestures.”
The German government shares the French concern about armed Americans. “In the United States, it is relatively easy for people to obtain weapons,” the Foreign Ministry advises German travelers. “If you are a victim of an armed robbery, do not try to fight back!”
Like the French, German tourists are advised to take American prudishness into account: “Nudism” and even “nude bathing on the beach” may be construed as indecent exposure by the Americans. The German government also urges its citizens to refrain from taking photos of naked children or babies, including their own, since Americans are inclined to see pedophilia in even the most innocent photos of babies in the bathtub: To U.S. law enforcement officials, “the line between ‘sexually suggestive’ photos and harmless family pictures is blurred.” And never, ever leave your child unsupervised: Americans may lock you up if you leave a child under 12 or 13 unattended, even for a moment.
Finally, German tourists are warned not to get sick in the United States — healthcare in the United States costs so much that “often it is cheaper … to fly back to Germany and deal with [your medical problems] here.”
The Austrians share the general European dismay about American prohibitions of topless sunbathing, and they ramp up the level of disapproval when it comes to rising crime levels in the United States. Property crimes are most common, they note, but rapes are also “häufen sich.” (“Piling up.”)
On the plus side, American tap water “is usually considered safe to drink, albeit not very tasty.”
The Swedes have more heady concerns: They warn their citizens about the American tendency to “meddle in other countries’ affairs” and about post-9/11 U.S. “limitations of human rights and democratic principles.” Though President Barack Obama pledged to leave behind former President George W. Bush’s counterterror policies, they note, “much remains unchanged, and during Obama’s time in power, America’s global-power position eroded.” Ouch.
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t care about the dearth of nude beaches in the United States, but it does outline a number of health concerns for its U.S.-bound travelers. In New York, one must beware of bedbugs and rabid animals. (To that end, Google Translate suggests that Japanese tourists should “avoid raccoons behaving recklessly,” but I’m not so sure about that translation.) Like the British and German governments, the Japanese government is dismayed by the American healthcare system: Medical care is “very expensive,” and since the only way for poor Americans to get healthcare is to visit emergency rooms, emergency rooms are often overcrowded, and “It takes a surprisingly long time from diagnosis to treatment. Sometimes it is better to return home and receive treatment in Japan.”
That’s not the only health concern: Though America is blessed with many public parks and places to exercise, “over-eating and lack of exercise” make many people in America fat, and the Japanese traveler must take precautions to avoid this fate. Also, life in America can be very isolating; travelers “need to consider the mental health side.”
The Chinese government also worries about how its citizens will fare amid well-armed and eternally suspicious Americans: “Do not talk about the topic of random bomb terrorism!” warns the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s consular-services branch. There is a “high crime rate in many American cities,” and there are too many guns; as a result, robbery victims should take care to “avoid desperate struggle — do not make criminals misunderstand you!”
For the most part, however, the Chinese government focuses on etiquette advice for the Chinese traveler: One should use a knife and fork to cut food into small pieces before placing it in the mouth, and one should refrain from talking while one’s mouth is full of “food or soup.” Also, “do not smoke or spit while walking,” and “hold the door” for people behind you.
Most important, Chinese tourists are reminded that Americans believe in standing in line without shoving past the people standing in front of you: “Do not jump the queue! In the United States, when many people are queuing for services … they will be lined up to wait in the order they arrived. Failure to comply with this order could lead to unnecessary disputes.”
You can count on the Russians not to mince words. “Despite the intensive propaganda of ‘universal values,’” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs notes grimly, “a universal American culture does not exist. However, there is a whole set of stereotypes … which are typical for the whole of American society…. For example, one such cliché is the assertion that in the United States there is a ‘classless’ society. However, this is true only in the sense that … it is the presence or absence of money that determines belonging to a ‘caste.’ From here originates the ‘American dream’ and another myth — the special democratic American society and its ‘tremendous freedom.’ However … the inequality of socioeconomic status between rich and poor is no less than any other country in the world. It is also true that the people of the United States are more materialistic and individualistic than other people….”
In other words, the United States stinks. America also has “the largest proportion of prisoners to the total population,” notes the government travel warning, but notwithstanding this high incarceration rate, the United States “is experiencing a very high level of killings. On average, 100,000 people in the United States accounted for 12 kills, while the corresponding figure is 10 people killed per 100,000 people for Canada, 6 killed per 100,000 for Sweden and Germany, and 4 per 100,000 for Italy.” (Pardon the poor translation, but I think you get the point: America is a violent place.)
In addition to ordinary crime, Russian travelers are urged to be wary of American law enforcement officials, who may try to arrest them on trumped-up charges. In fact, this can happen to Russian travelers anywhere in the world: The Russian Foreign Ministry wishes to “alert citizens of the Russian Federation … that the threat of being detained or arrested at the request of law enforcement bodies and special services of the United States in third countries is very real…. Despite our appeals for Washington to establish normal cooperation between law enforcement agencies on the basis of bilateral agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters … U.S. authorities continue the unacceptable practice of ‘hunting’ for Russians all over the world, ignoring international law….” Given the “prejudiced attitude of American ‘justice’ towards Russians … [it is] our urgent recommendation to Russian citizens in planning trips abroad to carefully weigh all the risks….”
But they don’t all hate us. Even the Russian government finds something to love about the United States. In America, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs notes wonderingly, “public restrooms are well-marked,” and one can generally use the restrooms in coffee shops and hotels.
Most amazing of all? True, America’s streets aren’t paved with gold — but its “public toilets are always and everywhere free.”
Photo credit: WALTRAUD GRUBITZSCH/AFP/GettyImages