During my far-and-wide travels the past year, I've been (like my ancestors long before me) "a stranger in a strange land", and I've been dwelling amongst all manner of strange and foreign people (many of whom were also far from home). It's no secret that I'm an Aussie; and naturally, "where you from?" is one of the first questions that gets asked and answered, when meeting new people while on the road. But until this trip, I never before realised just how strong and widely-known the stereotypical Aussie image is, or how much of a preconceived view this could implant in people, before they've even spoken two words to me. I've never really considered myself to be anything remotely close to the "quintessential Aussie bloke"; and having now been an ambassador of my country in the big wide world, I feel that I've done a dismal job of representing patriotically. Unfortunately, I've discovered a sad but undeniable truth about introductions: it's not who you are, it's what you are.
In case you've forgotten, let me describe to you what the rest of the world believes every single Australian male is like. The Australian male is tall, muscular, tanned and athletic. He lives next to the beach (or on it, or in it), and he's been surfing since he was five. He knows the words to Waltzing Matilda (badly), and if he goes to the pub and downs enough beer (which he does, frequently), he'll sing 'em for you whether you want him to or not. He plays footy and cricket. He calls all women "luv" or "sheila", and pinches their a$$es at every opportunity. He's been everywhere in Oz, from Uluru to Coolangatta, and from Wollongong to Dandenong; and in every place, he's wrestled ten-foot crocs and survived deadly snake bites. Tell him your name's Katherina Francesca the Third, and without hesitation he'll respond: "nice to meet ya, Kaz". He's the ultimate rough, redneck, lovable bloke — and if someone meets an Aussie and they're not that guy, then genuine surprise and disbelief ensue.
Considering all that, I should be ashamed of myself. I've never surfed in my life (although I may have fibbed about having "done it a few times" to people during this trip). Boogy-boarding is challenge enough for me. I'm slow, and definitely not athletic. Pubs are not my scene, and I've never ever drunk beer out of choice (i.e. without peer pressure). I don't even know the rules of cricket or footy (in any great detail), nor do I understand the difference between the (three?) types of footy that we play back home. I'm pretty shy with the ladies, even after a year of living a lifestyle that strongly encourages womanising. I'm a computer geek. I'm Jewish and I like matzah ball soup. I've seen far more of South America, than I have of Australia — I've been to many places on the coast between Surfer's and Melbourne, plus Perth; and that's about it. If a croc attacked me, I'd be half the man I was. If a poisonous snake bit me, I'd scream for every last second of the final 12 minutes of my life. I still introduce myself as "Jeremy", even though all other Aussies automatically dub me "Jez". I'm a disgrace to all blokedom, and I should be taken out back and shot this instant. At the least, I think I deserve a Good Behaviour Bond.
Of course, us Aussies aren't the only victims of national stereotyping in this world — I've been just as guilty of having preconceived images of others, as I've been subject to others' preconceptions of me. I ask the Americans how many shotguns they have in their wardrobe. I ask the French how many snails they eat for breakfast. I ask the Swedish what it's like to have a foursome on an Ikea dining table, with Abba playing in the background. I ask the Austrians if they prefer yodelling in the shower or on the hilltops. I ask the Israelis how many 10-year-old Palestinian girls they killed last Tuesday, and what they were thinking as they ate their falafel the next day. I ask the Japanese why they always have such long camera lenses (but thanks to South Park, I already know). I ask the Kiwis which position gives them most pleasure when doing a sheep. And I ask the Germans if they're... OK, so at least I don't ask that :P.
When you're travelling, you meet new people all the time. And apart from your name and your nationality, those people initially know almost nothing about you, and vice versa. Hence, unfortunately, there's really nothing to go by at the start. Nothing except for an exaggerated and unlikely national identity, which — the majority of the time — neither person even remotely conforms to (although a disturbingly large number of people do fully conform to it). And because travelling relationships are so short and so fleeting — and so numerous — there are all-too-many occasions when all you have is that collection of preconceptions, and when you have neither the time nor the effort to get past those preconceptions, and to actually discover the unique human being behind them.
Remember, we're all individuals!
Preconceived national image is not a problem that I ever anticipated, when I began this trip. But I've experienced it constantly, and in my opinion it really is a problem. For my backpacker kin, I have two words of advice. First, try to avoid laying the national caricature bull$#%t on your fellow travellers: unless they are blatantly the quintessential example of their country (and if that's the case, then chances are they're not worth being friends with), try to talk to them free of assumptions, and to discover their personality just as you'd discover that of any new friend that you'd meet back in your home country. And second, don't feel pressured to start conforming to your national identity — or even to pretend as such with a "patriotic personality mask" — no matter how much of that "so you must be a pretty good surfer" crap that people confront you with.
You are who you are, and you should be proud of it. Sure, you're an Aussie, or a Swede, or an Italian, or whatever. But you are also you — and don't ever let anyone tell you who you are, or who you should be, except you. Travelling poses very little risk of losing one's national identity, but a big risk of losing one's personal identity. Let's try and change things, so that from now on, it's not what you are, it's who you are.