Ways to Be American Abroad: A Working Guide

by Jen Paton IMG_0412

Every Sunday morning, over the simulacra of breakfast burritos, we have brunch. Sometimes, talk turns to language skills, our relative proficiencies in Russian. This one guy knows Arabic, used to live in Cairo.

“How did you learn Arabic?” someone asks him. “How” was the question, not “why,” nonetheless:

“I think for the same reason everyone in our generation wanted to,” this guy of my generation says, trying to catch my eye.

I’m not having any of this answer, I already know. “After 9/11, I think…everyone just wondered how the hell this happened.”

No, no. I don't speak Arabic, we're not even in an Arabic speaking country right now, but I'm still, like, NO.


Be too nice. Probably suspiciously so. Smile during all interactions. Say thank you at the end of every social interaction and in particular every service related transaction. Thanks for bringing me water. Thanks for giving me change at the grocery store. Thanks for handing me my bag of groceries. Thanks for moving out of my way on this crowded public transport. Thanks for allowing me to order at this restaurant without it being terribly complicated. Thanks! You do mean this, by the way, you can’t help yourself. Find that your niceness sometimes impedes your ability to get things done here.

Alternatively, be too rude. Sometimes by accident, because you actually cannot speak. Sometimes on purpose: get unreasonably annoyed and huffy when you get water with gas instead of still water, with no lemon, and when people cannot understand you, which is often. Complain often about the food you are eating, expecting other Americans to agree. Laugh too loudly, even when sober. You can’t help yourself. Find that your rudeness sometimes impedes your ability to get things done here.

Wear clothes whose appropriateness you have not fully considered. Wear military fatigues. Wear a suit. Wear shorts. Wear spaghetti straps. Wear long sleeves you think are modest but forget to consider the tightness of your clothes. Wear flip-flops – people will stare. Wear urban sportswear that makes local teens envious, or giggly. Wear workout clothes that make grandmothers glare. Wear freshly ironed shirts under cashmere sweaters with dark slacks. If under 30, cultivate a well-traveled stubble that highlights the fact that, actually, you have been traveling all over, not just in the capital.


“We toured your base last weekend,” she told me in a warm antipodean drawl. She was really friendly, and alone at the party, like me. Her husband works at a mining company. “That sounds interesting,” I said, about the base tour, not so sure I meant that. “It was very interesting,” she said. “It is very large, very busy. You can buy crisps that aren’t Pringles there.” Elsewhere at this party, someone has made homemade raspberry vodka.


Only go to parties where there are only other expats. Or, only go to parties where there are only locals. Be proud of the fact you’re not like other Americans, but be ready to have the same kind of conversation in both settings: where are you from, why are you here? This doesn’t bother you. Being new in a foreign city is like being a freshman in university, in its clubbiness and ease of meeting people, but for this question, the extra bit about why are you here. It couldn’t be, like college, just to learn. Could it?

Speaking of learning, don’t learn the language. Enjoy the fact that most people can speak at least a little English and that they are often eager to practice it on you. Or: learn the language with eager dedication. Hire a tutor to meet you twice a day and spend your evenings poring over your homework, or feeling bad about not doing so. Alternatively, buy a phrasebook or app, learn how to say please and thank you and excuse me and I want, and feel smug in front of the first sort of people and lazy in front of the latter.

Avoid cigarettes, and go for early morning jogs through the park, where you are the only jogger besides the odd Dutchman. Alternatively, smoke lots of cigarettes and eat plenty of Pringles (you aren’t imagining it: they are everywhere: those tubes ship well). For bonus points, show how au fait you are, how not like other Americans, smoke a local brand, secretly or openly wowed that it exists outside the movies.

In the nightclub, get unreasonably excited when they play Bon Jovi. Or, get really excited when they play “California Love.” Try and fail to rap along. Or, just stay at the table frowning when they play Bon Jovi, Tupac, or anything familiar. Roll your eyes at the rest of your cohort while they wave their arms in the air. Smoke your cigarettes quietly at your booth – isn’t it funny they still let you smoke inside here? It reminds you of being younger.


We were in a “German pub,” where there is a fountain with a statue of a knight outside. It reminds me of Miyazaki films that take place in menacingly beautiful imaginary Europesque places. There is that smoked shredded cheese snack and a variety of decent beer. The wait staff is in jaunty Germanic costumes. “Oh, do you know him? He’s so full of it,” she grumbles, taking a long drag on the red Irish beer. “He comes here for one month a year and thinks he can write about it.”


Avoid political conversation, because you just don’t get it and you never well, and you still get people’s names confused and are embarrassed about this, and anyway, you were never that interested in politics.

Or, actively intitiate political conversation. Show how engaged you are, how not like other Americans, by offering nuanced critiques of the administration’s policies. Try to remember what you read in that course during your BA four years ago, or in The Atlantic and The New Yorker three months ago, or on Twitter today, about the history or the political situation here. Complain about Bush (or hold your tongue testily while other Americans do). Lament Obama (or hold your tongue testily while other Americans do).

Alternatively, just listen, because

No, I just wanted to wake up in the morning and look out the window to a new place, and see what I could see. Isn't that why you're here, too?