I have always believed the term “tourist” held a negative connotation. When traveling, I make a conscious effort to navigate my new surroundings with ease and appear as a local to the untrained eye. As unreasonable and frivolous as this expectation may be—that one can integrate themselves into a new city as soon as they hop off the plane—I have always insisted upon it. Forgoing maps, extensive research into the best ‘local’ gems, and God forbid I ever solicit directions from a stranger. Despite the countless hours I spent poring over articles about trendy up-and-coming restaurants or lost (because I was too spiteful to ask for directions), traveling abroad everyone is inevitably flagged as “the American.”
Yes, my thick Chicago accent and extensive knowledge of junk food does blow my cover, but no amount of off-beat travel guides can prepare you for the cultural differences. Being thrust into the heart of your new home is the only route in which to completely enlighten yourself about another culture. I thought I was faring relatively well my first few weeks in London—living in other cities had prepared me for public transport, harsh Midwestern weather hardened me for the moderate winters, and I was reveling in the chic street style of the natives. I was existing in a bubble of overconfidence, but one ride on the Tube, London’s underground public transport, successfully burst my illusion.
A girl about my age was completely owning her tasteful grunge outfit (a la Kate Moss) and I felt inclined to pay her a compliment—wrong move. The look she gave me conveyed that she was assessing whether I had escaped from a psych ward or taken some bizarre street drugs. First lesson in British culture, people tend to be hesitant to interact with total strangers. Saying “hello” to passerby on the street and striking up conversation is a fairly American tendency. My other, more poignant lesson, was that at some point, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was a foreigner—and that’s not a bad thing.
Since embracing my tourist status, I have learned that as much as I am going to get out of this city, this country, and these people, I have to give as well. London is a global city, and people are enthusiastic to learn about other cultures (well, maybe not on the Tube), and understand their own from an outside perspective.
Sidebar: to the Swedish girl who asked me if my high school experience was “just like movie ‘American Pie’”…not exactly. The best conversations I’ve had thus far have been rooted in comparing and contrasting differing perspectives, norms, and lifestyles. Conversations I would have deprived myself of had I continuously made efforts to blend in. Embracing your own culture and simultaneously appreciating another is not only plausible, but necessary and rewarding. So in short, be the tourist. And probably invest in a map.