For the veteran travelers in my readership, you know it’s uncommon to be an American out here in Backpackerland. Australia, France, Germany, England–all respectable countries to identify as one’s home when on the road. The United States, however–not only an uncommon response, an often unwelcome one.
Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American describes a thoughtful, well-read East Coast scholar as his American character. In Burdick and Lederer’s novel The Ugly American, by contrast, a Burmese journalist says: “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.”
I can recognize both types of expat Americans. But more than I feel connected to those personalities, I just feel like The Only American out here. When I got on the train from Ulan Ude, Russia, to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, my compartment-mates greeted me and asked the first of two standard traveler questions: Where are you from? (The other one: How long are you traveling?) I answered “United States.” This was unintelligible to them, so I repeated it. Still nothing. “America,” I finally conceded, and the two Swedes and lone Belgian nodded politely.
Polite as they were, the Swedes turned out to be somewhat rowdy. A retired couple, they had just sold their house and everything in it and are traveling for nine months. They’re bikers, normally, but this time it’s just backpacking. The woman was wearing a shirt that said “Get your kicks on Rt. 66 — Chicago to L.A.” The gentleman was more vocal than his wife, and after pleasantries had ceased, he said, “So, an American traveling alone?” This isn’t the first time I’ve had that inquisitive response and I shrugged and said, “Couldn’t convince anyone to come along.” A long conversation about American healthcare, military power and Democratic politics ensued, which was only sort of worth my time.
But this wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed that there are almost no other Americans out here traveling. In Ulan Ude, the hostel owner asked my nationality. I told him. His eyes lit up. “You’re my first American since August!” he said, and mentioned that an American couple had made a reservation a few weeks ago but canceled at the last minute. Meanwhile, the lounge was full of French, German and Norwegian backpackers, all speaking English.
At the immigration formalities in Russia, which was a five-hour affair, I was wandering around the tiny dusty border town. I found a small shop and noticed some of my other train-mates were inside. They were speaking English. Their accent… it was AMERICAN! I hurried over to them and said, “You’re from the US?!” perhaps with a bit too much enthusiasm. They stared at me for a second. “Canada,” one replied, and they went back to talking amongst themselves.
Being The Only American has its perks, of course. I get to debunk (or not debunk) myths about our great nation and amuse Europeans with my strange accent. People seem to admire that not only am I an American traveling alone, I am a female American traveling alone… and in places like Russia and Mongolia. “Very brave American girl,” one Russian man purred at me somewhat lecherously, but I still took it as a compliment.
Next, though, onward to China, where I’ll meet not one but TWO other Americans (one in Beijing, one in Shanghai). I’ll have to lose my title of The Only American for awhile, but that’s okay. I’ll be sure to resume it soon after.