Why Americans are liked abroad

CAIRO — The perception that Americans are disliked abroad because of unpopular wars our government has waged or, simply and fuzzily, because we’re Americans, predominates much more than it should. Many of America’s foreign policies are, we know, loathed around the world, but most Americans who travel internationally don’t do so to transact cheap arms sales for Israel or convince the Chinese that protectionist U.S. trade policies are terrific.

Over the last five years I’ve spent more time living in the Middle East — a region which may have the littlest incentive to like Americans — than I have in the United States, and I feel as liked here as I did in North Carolina. I’ve never once had to pin a red Maple leaf to my backpack and sing “O Canada,” nor have I wanted to.

Here’s why we’re liked:

● Americans are humble. A 22-year-old Egyptian barber once spontaneously said to me while trimming my hair, “You know why I love Americans? They’re humble.” He’s right. For the wealthiest people in the world, Americans don’t often act like it. My stylist went on: “Americans throw away their own trash at restaurants, most don’t have their own servants, they don’t like to talk [about] money, and they don’t treat you bad because you’re a barber.”

● Americans are less insular than you may think. Sure, I know the belabored statistics on how many Americans don’t have passports, but this is a spurious figure. Such calculations need to account for a country’s size. It makes no sense to complain that Americans in Independence, Mo., travel abroad less than people in Vatican City. Meaningful numbers are more encouraging.

There are over 5 million Americans living abroad, not including those in military service, according to the Association for Americans Resident Overseas. About 260,000 American students study abroad each year. More than 60 million Americans travel abroad every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the exception of Turks in North Cyprus, no people I’ve met anywhere in the world are surprised when Americans visit, because we travel in such large numbers.

● Americans are generous. I don’t mean this in the way that Greg Mortensen is generous, for he is an angelic outlier. Nor am I talking about the most basic generosity, such as restaurant tipping, for which Americans are globally well-known. On a more intermediate level, private U.S. citizens are as likely to offer resources to those in need as any nationality on earth. While U.S. foreign aid may look weak compared with many Scandinavian countries when calculated as a percent of GDP — and U.S. aid often lines the pockets of despots — private American charity makes up the difference.

● Americans are tolerant. I just returned from Tunisia, a Muslim country that prohibits the wearing of the head scarf in public schools and government offices. In 2010 Switzerland passed a ban on building mosques with minarets. Germany has laws banning denial of the Holocaust. Quebec passed a ban on face-concealing Islamic garments for women who do business with government officials or do public sector work.

I’m both proud and pleased that every one of these bans is unconstitutional in the United States. “[I]t must be said,” wrote Columbia University President and First Amendment scholar Lee Bollinger, “even those that are nearest to the United States in their commitment to a democratic form of government (such as Great Britain, Germany and France) have sometimes arrived at a different balance when it comes to the press and other societal interests.” More so than most countries, the United States is known as a nation that hates discrimination, and appreciation of this is reflected in the ways Americans are treated abroad.

I spent more than a year in the Middle East during George W. Bush’s presidency and longer under Barack Obama’s service. Nothing has changed in how I’m treated; I’m not automatically associated with either president. That Americans are liked abroad, though, goes beyond the fact that people in other countries make important distinctions between Americans and their leaders. We’re liked, not just tolerated. Take a trip and see for yourself.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review.