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“It’s a big bad scary world out there!” Are you sure North America?

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Edit: I wasn't expecting this post to cause so much debate, but like the one linked just below, the reason I wrote it isn't to be “anti-American” as far too many crybabies are claiming, but because you guys need to read a different perspective and understand how us non-Americans think for a retrospective look at yourselves. I like America and actually live in New York currently, so these are just some thoughts. 

Also note that this post isn't about gun laws, but that is one mention of something us non-Americans find insane. I also mention some issues I had in Canada, which is why this title is “North America” and not America. And no, of course I don't think this about “all” Americans. Please read the ENTIRE article before over-reacting.

When I explained 17 cultural reasons why I probably wouldn't move to America, there's an important one that I didn't emphasize, which continues to confuse me:

Why is it that Americans seem to be in a constant state of fear about the world?

This is about both day-to-day life and especially about how bad other countries are. My time in North America at times has indeed been the one place I've felt the least safe out of an entire decade of travelling to over fifty countries, for a few reasons I'll give below, but also simply because of all the fear mongering the states does so well anyway.

I see one consequence of this aspect of American culture to be its need to have so many, and such easily accessible guns, which creates obvious terrible events that do nothing but promote even more fear.

A terrible tragedy hit a school in Connecticut a while ago that you will likely have seen in the news, where many children were shot to death. While perhaps discussing this would be topical, and somewhat proves my point, I actually already had most of this post written before that ever happened. It's just another one of many similar stories that are unfortunately not that uncommon in the states, even if the terrible body count happens to be higher this time.

The reason everyone has so many damn guns in the first place is because of America's fear of everything in the world, that has never been challenged as it has elsewhere. Or when they sometimes claim the guns keep them safe, and other countries are more dangerous, this makes me even more confused.

This illogical fear that America has of other countries has baffled me for as long as I can remember, as I see it as one hell of an exercise in cherry picking bad things happening abroad and blissfully ignoring those happening back home.

Rio and Egypt – too dangerous to visit?

When I was in Rio de Janeiro and talked to Americans, they told me to watch my wallet, and presume that I must have a got-robbed story from having spent an entire year of my life in Brazil. Actually it's one of my favourite countries and when you learn to act more Brazilian you'll find it's a lot easier to blend in with less worries.

Sure, I've heard a couple of stories of people getting mugged here in Rio (most cases I've heard have been American tourists who have been very naïve about walking around a poor part of town almost bragging about their wealth in accessories they flaunt; something they'd be unlikely to do in poor districts of American cities), but these add up to a lot less stories compared to how many I've heard of tourists getting mugged in New York City.

When preparing to move to Egypt, and it was a pretty regular thing for people to ask me if I was scared to go, as were protests in particular parts of Cairo at the time. These aren't protests against foreigners, attacks on random people in random places or anything of the sort. They are protests in particular parts of cities, aimed at dissatisfaction with the government, and its policies (more complicated than that, but definitely not directed at foreigners like me). If I see anything dangerous looking, I'll walk the other way.

So no, I wasn't scared. I watched the news and kept note to see how things developed as Egypt tries to find its place in the world. I planned to be cautious, but I have to be cautious and street-smart no matter where I go. If things take a turn for the worst, I'll re-evaluate my travel plans, but as long as I keep my wits about me, I saw this more as an interesting time to visit the country, while it's in such flux, and there are such discussions about its future. It's not a warzone.

Cherry picking stories for biased information

Mainstream news in America makes me want to weep for the world. All you ever hear about coming from other countries is how terrible a place they are.

Faux Fox news is by far the worst of all of them for doing this, and you can see the ridiculous extent they bring this to in this discussion on Amsterdam, which is a “cesspool of corruption and crime and everything is out of control; it's anarchy!”

I've lived in Amsterdam and would merrily walk or cycle home at 3AM with a hat made entirely out of €100 notes before I'd even show people that I have a smartphone a single block away from where I lived in Chicago.

As soon as something bad happens (and statistically, bad things are just as likely to happen anywhere), it's portrayed as that country being dangerous. But rape, murder etc. also happen in America and the causation of it implying “America is dangerous” is never similarly drawn. It's more a vague idea that the world in general is mega dangerous, and other countries are simply more dangerous.

My North American moments

Some of my scariest moments that couldn't have happened elsewhere I've been, have actually all been in North America. Many times this is a direct result of America's fear philosophy when you see so many guns and the nonsensical war on drugs. Ironically, all these measures to make things better by letting people easily “protect” themselves with guns actually make things much worse!

In San Francisco, a complete stranger I wasn't even talking to showed off his gun to me on a bus. He was talking to himself and looked like he needed serious mental treatment, and was probably living on the street. I came across a lot of people talking to themselves without anyone caring for them on such buses and hoped nothing would make them snap. While uncared poor people with conditions can happen anywhere, I never expected just how easy it was for anyone to get a gun in America until I saw him with one.

Is it any wonder that America has the worst statistics in the world of any developed country for gun related murders? When there are apparently 88.8 privately owned firearms per 100 people, and over 40% of households with firearms (so some people have several!), then yes, a foreigner like me is scared shitless to be walking the street in a country that thinks the zombie apocalypse has already begun, with its fair share of mentally unstable people who can access them. With over 30,000 firearm related deaths per year, how scared do you think I am of my increased likelihood of being a statistic when I'm in America?

It's not just guns though. And not just the United States. The day I left Vancouver last year, the streets broke out into chaos, with one of the worst riots of the year anywhere in the world… about a game of hockey. Not fighting for freedom or a new government, but because they lost a game. It's like the punchline of a really bad joke.

And on my way in from America, I had a terrible invasion of privacy when Canadian border control told me to wait for several hours in a separate area, while they took everything out of my bag and searched through everything I own in the world just in case I may be smuggling in drugs.

I wasn't, and I don't do any kind of drugs, but even if I was, what the hell business is it of theirs what I put in my body? A sniffer dog or a quick search while I'm present can already see if I've got a huge enough stash to be doing a drug run for profit, but every nook and cranny of what I owned was scoured just in case I had a few tiny grams. America's and Canada's war on drugs is just about the stupidest use of law enforcement and immigration resources I've ever come across in the world.

They took apart my CD cases, opened up pockets of the case where I was storing a few hundred dollars (and I should just trust them that they won't steal it), looked at all my private possessions (literally every single item I own on the planet), and I couldn't even be there to supervise it. When I came back, my bag was just left open, outside with all my stuff out on a table, some of it (including the cash) light enough that could have been blown away with the wind, since all this was done near where the car was parked rather than somewhere more secure… which is where I was waiting for hours like a prisoner on trial.

I thought you needed a warrant to go through people's possessions, or that you could at least let the person be present when you do that. But I guess North America's obsession with drugs means you can throw such basic rights out the window. While I wasn't afraid for my life here, I was afraid for my rights. If anything goes, why not just take my money (that I never counted precisely because I never expected people to be digging through my bag), or plant drugs on me?

Ransacking all my possessions was just about the worst welcome to a country I've ever gotten. And it's all because of an incredibly illogical and inconsistent fear of how bad drugs are.

Fear-based society

Back to America – my first job abroad was teaching Mathematics to teenagers in the states. I was only 18 at the time myself and because the other teachers were much older than me, it just made more sense for me to hang out with the students two years younger than me in my off time (none of which were in my own classes).

One day the guy who runs the school called me in and said he saw me lying on the grass beside the students. (Shock and horror!!!) I didn't understand what the hell the problem was, so he made me sit through a video… on inappropriate sexual behaviour. I wasn't holding hands, kissing, or you know, raping anyone, and I still had to sit through this rubbish (in true cheesy American video style).

I found out that the United States has the worst case of fear of anywhere I've ever been in the world. Children are constantly over-protected from the world – from germs, from strangers, from sexual predators “lurking around every corner”, and any time a news article comes up with something bad happening… anywhere, parents go all out in doubling up the protection.

Since there is no filter on the bad news, you just see every possible angle and possibility for something bad to happen and scramble to try to prevent it from happening to you.

You turn on the TV and you get brainwashed by all this fear. It's bad things presented to you out of context. Bad things have always happened and always will happen, but when we have news reporters to tell us any time it does, as if this somehow increases the likeliness of something bad happening to you, you start to get pretty damn pessimistic. Statistically, good and bad stuff just happens. It's how the world works. Don't obsess over things outside of your control.

When I see parents in the states overprotecting their children, then I see a part of their childhood getting robbed. No scraped knees, no wondering around discovering nature by themselves unsupervised, no meeting as many new people as possible – because everyone is out to get you. It's just making the next generation even worse off than the current one.

The world can be a very safe place with a bit of common sense

In all the time I've been travelling around, nothing absolutely terrible has happened to me. I've never been robbed, or beaten, or tortured or anything like that. Some say this is pure luck, but where I come from we have a saying: Every man makes his own luck.

I don't drink so I can keep my wits about me when I'm out alone, I learn the local language, so I can be aware of everything happening around me, I find non-verbal integration of a culture can help me blend in, and I don't walk around with a bloody DSLR camera around my neck all the time to stand out like a sore thumb. I am careful about what I eat and drink, and read up on the country before going and try to make local friends. I'm a little sceptical at first if a stranger is being “too helpful”, but still open minded about human generosity.

This is how I live my life EVERYWHERE. Ireland, America, the Philippines, Germany, China, Brazil, and Egypt.

Then again a few unfortunate things have happened to me, but I simply take them in my stride and try to get through them. I've been locked up by Federal police, ran out of money and had to sleep on a rock, and have many other stories for another day. Shit happens. I've gotten out of each jam by thinking clearly.

It's not fear that has kept me alive. It's being careful, and looking at the world logically, while keeping an open mind and trying to stay positive. Just because there are a few bad people out there doesn't mean everyone is out to get me and I should treat every stranger as an enemy until proven otherwise. A well known Irish philosophy is that a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet. You only need a little bit of healthy scepticism.

So don't be afraid to go to another country based on biased accounts you've heard about it. Don't be afraid of the world around you when you see bad stories on TV, because maybe that fear is what is keeping people so motivated to keep buying guns, and not trust one another in the first place.

What do you think? Is the world really that scary a place, or are we perhaps getting information overload with biased negative points of view, because sensationalism simply works better on TV? Coming from someone who has visited many places, I definitely think it's the latter and we should have a bit more faith in people and those from other countries. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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