As  read the book Three Cups of Tea, I couldn’t help but notice that Greg Mortenson is an exceptional person.  Also an exceptional American.  This is, I suppose, part of the point of the book, but a related aspect gnawed on me:

Greg Mortenson showed the people of northern Pakistan a very positive example of America and Americans.  Thanks to his efforts, they most likely have a fairly positive view of America.  For instance, Fatima Batool remarks, “I’ve heard some people say that Americans are bad.  But we love Americans.  They are the most kind people for us.  They are the only ones who cared to help us.” (Page 224)

But… I feel that since Mr. Mortenson is not representative of the American people, the views he is spreading are disingenuous. Mortenson and his supporters are but a select few individuals.  What of the 850 letters that Mortenson sent, with so little results?  What of the hate mail sent by Americans upon knowing that he wished to help educate the Pakistani children?  What about the politicians and generals who only looked for American securities and benefits to American interests?  Or what of the great majority of Americans who were just apathetic to the cause?

In my eyes, it probably benefits the US if we are seen as good, kind, and helpful, but a reputation undeserved is just that – undeserved.

Of course, as I thought about it.  Mortenson really wasn’t the only American seen by the Balti and others.  The book mentions the climbers, who left trash everywhere, but helped the economy and were described in relatively neutral terms – able to be motivated for good.

This draws me to my own experiences traveling the world, as a K2 climber is a tourist of sorts, and I have spent a good deal of my life being a tourist as well.

As I wander around the world, I am often reminded that I am an American, and that America’s reputation precedes me, and I contribute to people’s understanding of Americans.  I know that I am not very representative of America, so I remind people that America is huge and diverse, and while there are other people like me in America, the vast majority of the people are different, often radically so.

Of course, the stereotype of Americans I run into abroad also does not stem from actual Americans – instead, it stems purely from tourists, and often varies by what manner of American tourists are common in an area.  In Cambodia (a few years back) and Laos, the majority of Americans were backpackers – fit, young, liberal, and often paired in couples.  In Bali, the Americans were of the more sedentary style, using money to explore the island in ease, and enjoying themselves in the nightlife that catered to Westerners.  In Hong-Kong, Americans were often businessmen or professors.

What should us tourists, and other travelers do?  How should we represent ourselves?  How should we represent America?  How should we counter the biases that have grown around Americans from the earlier American travelers to the area?  How do we help people understand America as it is, not as it appears to be, and not as it would like to be seen?

This then falls into two categories of action: Managing appearance, and helping people.

Perhaps there should be some sort of ethical code for travelers that mandates action?  Or is the old expectation that interfering in native affairs generally leads to misfortune safer?

The whole thing makes me wonder, as a tourist.  But perhaps there is a optimum and ethical role for the legions of tourists traveling the world.