Most Americans traveling abroad understand that they are held to a high standard of behavior, which means leaving the hometown shenanigans at home — after all, taking your pants off and touching the locals is frowned upon in most countries.
But there is more to responsible action overseas than avoiding an open-ended stay in a foreign jail. Student exchange and study-abroad programs, for example, are often held up as means of communicating our values to the world. During my (abridged) stay in Beirut this summer, though, I was deeply discouraged to see that the students who participated in my intensive Arabic program seemed less interested in demonstrating the ideal American character than in indulging their political navel-gazing.
On a field trip to the city of Baalbek less than a week before Hezbollah picked an unwinnable fight with Lebanon’s southern neighbor, my classmates thought it would just be so cool and different to stock up on Hezbollah t-shirts from the local street vendors. Only $10 apiece!
I was unhappy, to say the least, when my fellow Americans failed to grasp that wearing the Hezbollah logo, complete with AK-47, was not “cute.” They were not milling around the mall food court sporting that oh-so-rebellious Che shirt. They were in a foreign country putting together hot outfits by endorsing an armed militia that represents the largest obstacle to Lebanese freedom and democracy — and that $10 was actually a cash donation to Hezbollah.
Beyond the mind-boggling fact that these kids threw their U.S. dollars at a group that was responsible for the deaths of 241 U.S. marines in 1983, they demonstrated a total ignorance of their responsibilities as representatives of our nation. Thanks to a fairly severe State Department travel warning, Lebanon sees few Americans who are not of Lebanese descent. (Guess which paramilitary group was the primary factor leading to that travel warning.)
In Lebanon, Hezbollah does not represent a romantic, authentic Lebanese struggle. If I lived in a Lebanon held hostage by a bunch of thugs who used their AKs and foreign patrons like Syria and Iran to crowbar Lebanese politics into submission and then saw an American wearing one of their t-shirts, I’d probably die a little inside.
The Americans with whom I studied didn’t seem to appreciate the responsibility they assumed before coming abroad. Americans are not just foreigners, and America is not just another country. American exceptionalism is real, not just to Americans, but to the rest of the world, where people aspire to our ideals or to become Americans themselves. One of the first nights I was in Lebanon, I stepped into a sandwich shop for dinner. For 5,000 Lebanese pounds, I got a steak wrap and the dinner company of the cashier, who pulled out his pocket dictionary and enthused to me — in English, because my Arabic is terrible — how he was learning English so he could one day come to America.
Meanwhile, the Americans in my Arabic class thought it was clever and cosmopolitan to come up with practice sentences disparaging our culture. When the other half of Beirut was bombed, a Lebanese student complained to a classmate of mine about America’s perceived bias toward Israel. The American thoughtfully responded, “Yeah, Americans are racist.” Not helpful.
Communicating pride in your country to others does not necessarily require over-the-top chauvinism. If you’re abroad for the Fourth of July, you don’t have to try to start “U.S.A.” chants everywhere you go — although I wanted to (I was outvoted). Americans overseas have a duty to behave like intelligent, decent people, which usually entails keeping AK-47s off their chests. They don’t need to deliver a Powerpoint presentation defending U.S. foreign policy every time someone broaches the topic, but it is possible to intelligently express disagreement with U.S. policy without disparaging the president or your countrymen in an effort to assure everyone that you’re one of the good ones.
Maybe these Americans in Beirut were a fluke, but I doubt it. If the self-selecting bunch of Americans who travel abroad, especially to vitally important regions like the Middle East, is uninterested in conveying the U.S. perspective or actively disapproves of it, that poses a serious problem. Americans need to be reminded of their responsibility as envoys of our culture, our politics and the American people. If they’re still uninterested in behaving properly, then it might be that we can no longer count on our students to represent our values — unless those values entail paying $10 for oppression on a t-shirt.
Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. He spent part of the summer at the American University of Beirut.