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The Ambassador

The Ambassador

Photos by
GAS

Published July 15, 2008

When I was packing my bags to come to Iceland, one criterion stood out in particular: “Don’t look like an American tourist. Don’t look like an American tourist,” I told myself, weeding out hiking boots and flip-flops in favour of nondescript sneakers and sandals.

There is a general stigma that comes with being an American in a foreign country. When I went to China a few years ago, we were taught that to avoid a nasty confrontation we were to announce that we were Canadian if out nationality ever came up. Americans are frequently dismissed as obnoxious and inconsiderate. There’s the classic example of the American foreigner asking for directions from a bewildered local, shouting in highly annunciated English as if he were addressing someone who was mentally disabled. Americans can also be considered manipulative and opportunistic, shoving people aside who would get in their way of fully exploiting a situation.

When considering these stereotypes, it’s not difficult to see a parallel with American international policies. America has a habit of only acknowledging the rules put forward by the rest of the world when it is in its best interest (e.g. the Kyoto Protocol, the authority of the UN, the Geneva Conventions). America is often compared to a bully, headbutting its way through regulations, asserting its superiority over other countries and the preeminence of its opinions. America has a lot to answer for, and when an American arrives in your country, that burden falls on them to redeem.

So then, how does Iceland hold up on the scale of prejudice against Americans? Are they higher or lower than normal? I had read (for the sake of honesty, in my travel guide) that Icelanders were a tolerant people and slow to make assumptions. Likewise, I’d heard stories of Americans being physically assaulted by Icelanders. What to believe?

This issue, Grapevine decided to get to the bottom of this prejudice among Icelanders. We sent me, an American, out in the world to document my experiences in Iceland, the adversities or lack thereof that I would face with regard to my nationality.

However, there were still a few hurdles. Generally speaking, I’ve never been supportive of the path our nation has taken in recent years; I’m kind of a hippie, and I’ve had a few “I’m going to move to Canada” moments. In other words, I don’t quite “fit the mould.” In fact, I’m often mistaken for an Icelander. And having picked up a significant amount of Icelandic, I can perform daily tasks like buying groceries and saying hello to people on the street without exposing myself.

Somehow, I needed to become more American.


Doing Double-Duty

But, America is a big place. I can even name a lot of distinct Americas within that America. The only national trend I can identify would be a strong sense of capitalist ambition, which is a bit abstract to wear on one’s sleeve. I looked and acted like most of my American friends, but
this clearly wasn’t effective enough in displaying my nationality.

Unable to conceptualize my national dress, I asked a few Icelanders for help. To appear American, they recommended I do the following: I should wear flip-flops, shorts, a windbreaker, a baseball cap, running shoes, polarized athletic sunglasses, a polo shirt, and tote a big fat camera around. I should be obnoxious where I am mild, be rude where I am polite, say I’m a Republican when I am a Democrat, and talk with a
southern accent when I am actually from New York. Giving me a look-over, they said  “How are you going to pull this off?”

“I don’t know.” I said.

I tried anyway. For a few days I tried my best to look less like me, and more like an “American”. I wore plainer clothes – jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers – along with more touristy things – windbreaker, camera, and a travel guide poking out of my pocket. I spoke only distinctly American English, but I chickened out on all the acting like a jerk stuff. Even in the tourist outfit, I gathered no more (or less) attention than I necessarily deserved. I behaved decently, and so did everyone else I met. Apart from getting funny looks for wearing what appeared to be a raincoat in the warm sunshine, I was just an American guy walking around Reykjavík minding his own business. I soon started getting bored with the article, angry even. What had I been expecting?

If I was going to be polite, everyone else would be polite to me, too. If I was going to act like a jerk, people would just treat me like a jerk. What was there to be gained? The only thing I could make from acting like a boor would be a just another poor example of my own countrymen. The persona I had tried to put on myself was not American but a hollow caricature based on the prejudices not only of my friends, but me as well. I might as well only be myself. Wasn’t that American enough? I dream big, celebrate my freedom, and have a soft spot in my heart for my mother’s apple pie. Despite how Icelandic I may seem or how progressive I am, that can be American too. It is. I’m living proof. I put windbreaker and camera away.


It All Starts with You

One weekend when I was in my normal clothes, I was having a drink in a bar with a few friends. Like a moth to a candle a very drunk Icelandic man, hearing my American English, came up to me, stuck a finger in my face and began growling: “And hey you, I’ve seen you, I’ve seen you take off those glasses I know you don’t need them, they make you look gay, you fucking gay American…” And then a few people pulled him away and he skulked off grumbling to himself. After a round of uncomfortable laughter, we composed ourselves, watching him disappear back into the crowd.

“You should put that in your article,” my friends said to me.

“Perhaps I will” I said. And I have.

But what does it prove? All Icelanders, if drunk enough, will reveal that they are definitively and irrevocably prejudiced against Americans? I may have discovered one man’s prejudice, but then discovering a nation’s prejudice, isn’t that… well, a little prejudiced? I can’t justify that every Icelander in the bar that night was thinking that exact same thing. In seeking Icelandic prejudice, I just happened upon my own. Damn. Every beast devours its own tail.

As self-evident as it seems, no country, no group of people are uniform. It isn’t as if they act under a singular entity making the same decisions and opinions for everyone. Nations and groups are collections of individuals, and you can meet all sorts of those. There are prejudiced Icelanders, just as there are rude, pushy, obnoxious Americans somewhere in that big country. And there are polite and friendly Americans, and Icelanders who will pull a rowdy drunk away from a stranger. Each of us is our own person; we all make our own actions. Also, everyone makes judgements, and we must all be ambassadors of our groups and mind our manners. America needs to work on its diplomacy, true enough. So does everyone.



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