Why is it so “bad” to be a tourist?
We’ve all been there. It’s the first week back at school and you feel like a fish out of water. You fumble around searching for your NYU ID, forget which subway to take and mistakenly think you can get your Starbucks order in the five minutes between classes. After the initial shock of being back in the city, you begin to feel at ease and pretty soon you feel like a New Yorker again.
Studying abroad is like that first week amplified by 1000. You have no idea where you are, where you’re going or how to get there. Everyone speaks a different language from you, uses a different currency and actually knows where they’re going. You, with your dollar bills and city map, scream “tourist” everywhere you go.
I expected this novelty to pass just as quickly as it does when I return to New York after being gone for a while, but it’s been almost a month in and I still feel like I stick out.
As a self-proclaimed New Yorker, I’ve often scoffed at people who took photos in front of the Washington Square Arch and walked slowly on the sidewalks. But now in Prague, I find myself consciously making decisions about my behavior in order to seem more Czech and, more importantly, to not seem like I’m from America.
The other day I bought a pair of boots in a Czech shopping center and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. As I brought the shoes up to the counter to pay, the cashier began speaking to me rapidly in Czech. Embarrassed, I muttered “English?” but this had no effect on her Czech rant. She continued to speak to me in Czech and I continued to stare blankly at her, hoping that I could somehow telepathically figure out what she was trying to say. After about a minute of her speaking and holding up a bottle of shoe cleaner, I managed to figure out that she was telling me that there was a promotional deal where I would be getting the shoe cleaner for free. After that incident I began thinking about how “touristy” I must’ve looked floundering at the cash register.
When I am in a bar and I order a Czech Pilsner — their national beer — and the bartender smiles and nods at me, I give myself an internal high-five for assimilating even though I dislike light beers. When I am on the metro and see two drunk people having a relatively “loud” conversation, I try to look at them with an exaggerated amount of disdain because I read in a book that Czechs don’t really talk on metros — I just want to fit it. When I am in the Old Town Square, I hesitate to take pictures of the gorgeous architecture because I don’t want local Czechs to think I don’t belong.
The truth is, I don’t belong. I am an American from a small town in Connecticut wandering aimlessly through the cobblestone streets of Europe because I am too proud to ask for directions. Somewhere between trying to get rid of my “American-ness” and striving to become Czech, I forgot why I’m really here, which is to see a part of the world that I’ve never been to.
It is okay to act like a tourist when you are a tourist. It is also okay to take photos of beautiful buildings because they are beautiful, whether or not you are a local. My fellow abroad students and I need to recognize the language barrier as a learning experience, not as the mortifying mark of a tourist.
Email Mariah Melendez at [email protected]