Our U.S. passports have been redesigned with 28 pages of patriotic images. But a bald eagle, bison and the towering figures of Mt. Rushmore are not going to make me rush out and present it with an invigorated sense of pride. In fact, this heretofore proud American sadly bought a turquoise-colored passport cover to go undercover while traveling to Europe and Asia this summer.
My queasiness is excusable considering the anti-U.S. sentiment sweeping the globe. A January BBC poll revealed that people in over 27 countries -- ranging from Germany to Indonesia -- felt that U.S. influence was mainly negative. A 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the U.S. is now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbors and allies including Britain and China. "Even more troubling is how many in the past, including the Vietnam era, may have disagreed with U.S. policy but had a favorable opinion of our people," says Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the advertising giant DDB Worldwide, who three years ago started Business for Diplomatic Action," a non-profit, non-partisan organization designed to mobilize the U.S. business community in improve America's global reputation
Not that I need a poll to tell me these truths.
A friend traveling to Korea told me that one restaurant in Seoul had a sign pasted on its windows, "Americans are not welcome." In places as diverse as Budapest to Argentina, others passed protests in the streets. While traveling, I have also heard a disturbing rise in anti-American sentiments at private dinner parties, which is a stark contrast to support we felt after 9/11 where in France the banner newspaper headline was, when translated, "We are all Americans." Even shows like Boston Legal muse about how we are viewed outside our borders.
Some friends have reacted to these negative sentiments by choosing summer vacations in Nantucket or Newport Beach. But with more zeal than ever, I have opted to travel abroad and embark on an important mission. I love my country and want to help rebuild our image, one person at a time. How does one become an effective U.S. ambassador when so many dislike America? Good manners and common sense.
If, as I've heard, many view America as a bully with little respect for the customs and traditions of other nations, my first step is to surprise people with my knowledge of their culture. This is not only learning to say, "Hotel Costes, s'il vous plait." American resourcefulness, the spine of innovation, demands a little more work than that.
On a past trip to Rome, I sat at a dinner and marveled at how the songs of Italian composer Vittorio Merlo had been downloaded 200,000 times worldwide. The source of the information was easy: Google, the Internet's way of never having to say you're ignorant. You can even download popular foreign artists on iTunes. Those wanting to impress can also research the top designers, authors, society figures and local politicians. A universal icebreaker is learning what sports teams are dominating the culture which gives you immediate access to everyone from shopkeepers to a titled count. (Knowing soccer stars usually scores your goal.)
When booking restaurants abroad, ask for local hangouts. I make a point of asking waiters to describe the history of their favorite local cuisine and wines, and then ordering it, even though one time I ended up eating live eel in Beijing. But on an overall scale, opening my taste buds and heart has improved my palette and cultural understanding.
Another step is to stay away from chain hotels. Many people I know only stay at the Four Seasons which amounts to recreating their American life with familiar comforts. I have chosen to stay at quintessential local hotels -- the Covent Garden Hotel in London, the Alvear Hotel in Buenos Aires, Esprit St. Germains in Paris, Hotel de Russe in Rome in order to understand where I'm going and not where I've come from.
At times, that has meant not having sufficient hot water, but it does give me a better chance of gauging the political and cultural temperatures.
I also try to engage in conversations with taxi drivers, who are on the frontlines of what people are thinking. Many hotels provide English speaking drivers who are reluctant to diss about differences. But by probing a bit, which few patrons try to do, I have sparked conversations about American possibilities. In fact, one of my handy truisms is that the father of Sirius radio mogul Mel Karmazin was a cab driver which always gets a surprised and favorable response, especially in countries with suffocating class divides.
As a result of engaging in discussions, don't be surprised to hear some criticisms. As the Boy Scout motto says, it pays to be prepared. Therefore, while visiting a country, learn something favorable Americans have done, since increasingly, people tend to have selective amnesia. Canadian born comedian Dan Aykroyd told me he diffuses criticisms by reminding others that "Americans are the most generous people on earth" and is a "superpower who has shared its affluence." On a smaller scale, tip well wherever you go, whether it's a cabdriver, housekeeper or waiter. If the conversation steers to our pop culture's emphasis on vacuous sex so personified by Paris Hilton, I invoke the altruistic spirit of Wesley Autrey who threw himself on a subway car to protect a stranger.
One can also disarm with a pre-emptive strategy -- bemoaning some of our country's misguided policies before others have a chance to raise them. The point is that here or abroad, Americans enjoy the freedom to dissent, and according to our personal views, we should exercise it.
I also consider being friendly a patriotic duty. That trait is one of our enduring stereotypes and can be used to our advantage. Ask questions to people sitting next to you. Smile.
Even if you don't know the language, learn the basics of please and thank-you in the native tongue. It is a myth that people don't appreciate this little effort since no act of kindness, however small, is wasted. (P.S. I apply this strategy in New York too when getting a manicure. Saying "Kamsa Hamada" at my local Korean shop always results in a better and longer massage).
Another strategy is showcasing environmental friendly habits. Even if you can't invent an alternative to gas consumption, you can exercise good judgment in not littering and renting gas guzzling cars.
As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said to Tom Friedman, "Those who dislike America because of Iraq, would at least be able to say, 'Well, I don't like them for the war, but I do like them because they show such unbelievable leadership -- not just with their blue jeans and hamburgers but with the environment. People will love us for that.'"
Moral authority may be hard to muster up in the current climate, but graciousness and ingenuity can help stave off any growing negativity. Summer months are also a time when foreigners visit the U.S. If you see someone trying to decipher a map, stop and offer not only directions but fun places to go. Recently at a New York jazz club, I was seated next to a Dutch couple while listening to a Chuck Loeb concert and started a conversation. To their surprise, I picked up the tab, explaining that I wanted to reward their country for defending freedom of speech after the senseless murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. This will be a souvenir of their trip, a story they are likely to tell their friends at home, making my spontaneous, heartfelt gesture a far better investment than any gala ticket.
Yes, to many the American dream may be as rare as the buffalo on our new passports.
But our image problem has also resulted in self-reflection and an overdue dose of humility. Don't leave home without it.