For Those Of You Who Think It’s Easy Being An American…

Being from one of the most well-known, (in)famous countries in the world is not always easy when traveling. While mostly it’s not a big deal, I have been verbally abused and discriminated against for my place of birth.

I have been blamed for the global financial crisis (yes me, personally). I’ve had to have a guy thrown out of a bar I worked at for being totally disrespectful thanks to my nationality. I was also harassed to the point of me leaving a job overseas because my coworker thought it was so hilarious to take the piss out of me.

Bush’s years in office were truly not the optimal time to start a round the world trip like I did.

I also get more indirect slights that are like, “You’re cool for an American,” or “You’re not like the other Americans here.” Thanks – I think.

Look, I have a good sense of humor. I can laugh at myself and take weird things said to me in stride. Mostly.

And I’m not saying that I don’t get it either. The political influence that my country has had in some others and the destruction that it has caused is pretty extreme in some cases. I don’t know how I would feel if roles were reversed and American tourists were invading a place that at some point in the past their government had helped to destroy.

But when I was essentially accused of being racist, classist, and exploitative towards Colombians in an open forum, in Colombia by a Colombian, I thought that there was a blip in the Matrix.

I mean me? Someone who is obsessed with Colombia, and has been since my first day here? Someone who has produced articles about Colombia for various publications and tons on my blog, without a bad word in them?

Even though the event happened three days ago, I am still recovering. But let me back up and tell you the whole story.

In my photography course, we were told to bring in five of our favorite photos. It was an extremely difficult choice, obviously. But the week before, my teacher was drilling into our brains that the photos that are most memorable are impactful.

So I browse my collection of photos, looking for ones that are cool and will make an impact.

My favorite photos are ones that really represent a country or a city or a place. It’s like with just one shot, you get a feel of the essence of said place, and I thought most of my photos did this.

My teacher took offense to these two shots above, especially the little boy. He said that the boy is obviously poor and miserable, that I look at Colombia like it’s the third world, that farmers here have it soooo bad and farmers in the US live like kings. Then he told a story about how his Colombian friend who lives in Spain is called a racist name by some of the locals.

And that I have a grand opportunity here in Colombia to show the better side of the country and not perpetuate what the media puts out. As if I don’t already know that, and haven’t been doing that for years.

That’s quite different from the thoughts and intentions I had about these two photos. As for the little boy, well I met him on my way to La Cueva del Esplendor on the outskirts of Jardin. A friend and I had to pass through his finca on the way. His family allowed us and stayed inside. He, curious, came out to stare at us and didn’t say much.

I thought he was adorable and so I asked him to smile for a photo. He didn’t really know what to do so he twisted up his mouth in a few different ways, none of them exactly a smile, and it was a pretty funny moment. I never even thought about how much money the kid has or doesn’t have until I was told that the child is obviously miserable.

The other photo I like because it seems like it could be some kind of political statement. I also feel it captures an essence of Bogota – the graffiti, the way the guy has his scarf covering his nose and mouth (lots of people walk around like this for the cold and for the smell of the buses). I’m also fascinated by graffiti and I think this was a cool piece.

I am posting this article because writing can be a really cathartic process, and I hope that by getting out my hurt and frustration, as well as my true intentions, I can take the power out of his words.

I’m also dreading class on Tuesday. Do I sit in the back and lay low? Do I explode at him the next time he hints at anything derogatory? Should I pull him aside and ask him to please refrain from mentioning my nationality in class? Do I ask for a transfer?

What would you do?

  • David Krug

    Keep your head and wow him with the unexpected. 

  • I’ve travelled a lot and I know that Americans do need to put up with a lot of crap from natives of other countries and some fellow travellers too. As you point out, most people have an issue with Americans due to something the American Government has done to their country. I’m British so I’m surprised I haven’t come across problems like this before because of what Britain has done in the past.

    Personally, I’ve met a lot of great Americans over the years in my travels (apart from one very rude American in an Airport in Amsterdam! haha). Any good person will not judge someone for the country they are from. I’m sure you’ll receive more racism during your travels over the next ten years. My advice to you would be to not to waste energy on people who view the world that way.

    With regards to your class, I don’t think anyone would think any less of you if you just left the class. Life is short so why waste your time hanging around narrow minded people. Though perhaps it would be best to take the teacher to the side, speak to him directly about the issue and explain to him that you are not what he thinks he is. Perhaps this could go some way to stopping his ignorant view of Americans and teach him to give everyone a clean slate when he meets them.

  • Ask him to read this blog, or express the same things you did in the post to him personally. If you have an honest discussion with him, he’ll understand that his interpretations of your photos are not the only interpretations of them; and in fact, he’s the one reading negative interpretations into them, so maybe he’s the one who see Columbia that way (or more likely just hates that others do).

  • You’re right. I normally just ignore people like that, it’s just in this particular situation I’m not really able to. I really want to learn photography and other than this mishap, I really like the school. I think the best way to go would be to talk to him, though I don’t trust myself to not cry or get mad LOL.

  • I think he has a complex. Like I’m pretty sure he’s never been to the US and has never known an American so he just goes by what he has heard and seen on TV, which is quite ironic. Having a talk with him would be best I think. Thanks for your input :)

  • Debs

    Art is all about creating a discussion and understanding the artist’s interpretation, not assume that the artist is a classist or racist. I am incredibly shocked that this kind of ignorance came from a photographer. He shouldn’t have made you feel that way. He should’ve created a class discussion and asked you what was your interpretation of it. If you like the course and if he is a good teacher, then I would have a chat with him and tell him that it was inappropriate of him and it upset you. He needs to know. Otherwise, maybe go for a transfer and find a teacher who is less ignorant. I agree with you, it sounds like he does have a complex. I hope all is well in other areas of your life chica. I’m back in England now and am well jealous of your travels.

  • Allen

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is shit.  What people perceive is a DIRECT reflection of their own world, experience, reality, mindset, etc.  That is, it is personal to self only.

    This is often more psychology than most are willing to hear, let alone contemplate.

    By the way, the photo of the boy spoke to me and I think the photo is brilliant  -> NG type of piece.

    What would I do?  Try to explain this to him, but rest assured to myself that I have a high  probability of failing to convince him.  You can lead a horse to water but, …

  • Yeah exactly! I was also totally confused that he’s a photographer and said that about my photos.

    Things are good otherwise – I’m very happy to be back in Colombia :)

    Hope you’re doing well and it’s so nice to hear from you Debbie! <3

  • I agree about the psychological aspect. That’s one of the cool thinks about art, is that everyone sees something different. Though I certainly wasn’t expecting his vision :-/

    Thanks for the compliment! I’m excited to get better with the photography and take some photos that are even cooler :)

  • Ben the Gringo

    My name is Ben, not “Gringo.”  People have funny ideas about Americans here.  I have had a few experiences myself  so far.  Stand up for yourself.  The camera does not lie.  If he doesn’t like how his country looks, he should help change it.  If you need help, let me know.  I know some people.  Corruption works both ways.

  • Discover Colombia

    Take the high road. Are you living in Bogota? I spent 4 years (2005-2009) in Medellin. The people there are super friendly and I never experienced anything like what you describe above. The photo of boy states the innocence that still exists in many parts of Locombia and the graffiti is something that I also had an interest in while I was there as there are some amazing pieces around some of these towns. * I would like to add your blog to my blogroll once I get my site up and tweaked once again. It is something I put together out of boredom back on 05/06 when there was not much else available (that has changed by now) – discovercolombia.com. Good job! Keep up the good work! The key is to keep exposing the beautiful side of Colombia and Colombians no matter what anybody says.

  • Discover Colombia

    By the way. I do not think anybody who lives in Jardin is miserable. It is a little paradise. The little boy and little dog both have full bellies and they live in a wonderful place where money is not the focus.

  • I am from the U.S. and I haven’t had too many problems from professors at la universidad de antioquia nor la universidad nacional. They asked me some questions that I found ignorant but happily educated them. I was on campus all of the time talking to leftists (I happen to be left-leaning myself) and participating in demonstrations which I think that made a big impact on my classmates and professors. Being married to a Colombian who grew up in severe poverty didn’t hurt either. 

    I think that if you leave the class he wins. Don’t let him win, be strong and be exemplary. Being exemplary is the best thing any American traveling abroad can do, otherwise negative perceptions will prevail. 

    By the way, saying “you’re cool for an American” is probably the most annoying cliché thing you can say to an American. 

  • I’m in Medellin actually though I have lived in Bogota as well

  • Cataariz

    Jasmine, no se como vas con tu español y yo solo se leer en ingles, pero bueno. Soy colombiana y he visto muchos colombianos que actual como tu profesor, aunque no tengo respuestas tengo la hipotesis que es una cierta  expresion de un complejo de inferioridad. Yo no comparto tu gusto por los grafitis, pero vi tu reportage a la cueva y se ve una region hermosa, tooda. No creo que la foto del niño sea una expresion de tu gusto por la pornomiseria, es un niño campesino simplemente, con la ropa para ensuciarse y para correr por el campo. Como queria tu profesor que estuviera? con traje y corbata?. Aprecio mucho tu blog y te aprecio como persona. Continua asi. Catalina de Paris!

  • Hola Catalina! Gracias por tus comentarios. Estabando pensando lo mismo – su ropa es normal por lo que hace en el dia, tambien los niños en EEUU tienen ropa para jugar. No se. La verdad es que nunca he encontrado alguien asi en Colombia, y mucho menos un profesor. Gracias por tu visita :)

  • Stetson Johnson

    as a photography instructor and therefore, photographer, i would assume your teacher considers himself an artist.  as an artist, he should understand that an accurate holistic representation of a theme is far more appropriate than a censored one, which is what he obviously wanted from you.  “choose something memorable and impactful,” he told you but obviously forgot to add, “but make your subject/theme appear in a positive light.”
    as an expat in colombia for almost five years i have learned that colombia has many sides, as do all nations.  sharing powerful and impactful images of both are important.  next time perhaps a picture of a super-wealthy rolo in a power suit and tie with his big-breasted caleña wife on his arm decked out in gold chains would have been more representative to your instructor?
    stick to your guns!

  • H. Arroyave

    Invite your teacher for a cup of coffee. Share your concerns. Ask him to address these type of issues in private.
    I would also recommend two books for you. They are ‘The Ugly American’ and ‘Our Own Worst Enemy’. Hopefully these books will give you an understanding of anti American venting.
    Mazel tov.

  • Sstephenson213

    First time leaving a comment.  Very interesting issue.  Clearly he has a problem with the way he thinks outsiders perceive Columbia.  I can understand.  Every time we tell people where you are the first statement is, is it safe?  It is something the country has to overcome and will take time.  I would recommend like most of the other comments had suggested that you have a discussion with him in private.  Your blog posting Dear Columbia: A Love Letter is all he needs to read to get a feel for who you are and what Columbia means to you.   Get to class early on Tuesday and try to talk to him.  Good luck and stand strong.  Have a great weekend enjoying Columbia!!!

  • Julia

    Even uf I am not a good photographer myself I can tell that those two pics are really great! & I know what you talking about I am from Germany for ignorant people thats sometimes even worse… but dont stop this class rather show this guy who you are because I am glad that I met you because you are really cool for an american ;)

  • It’s an interesting phenomenon among the middle classes of “developing” countries to try to become angry when foreigners notice anything about their country that is not a hallmark of the “new globalized era.” They seem ashamed of how their countries really are, of the people who are not uppity and middle class, and this is genuinely sad. People want to see the world as they wish to see it, and when you throw the falseness of their worldview back at them they all too often respond with anger. Your photograph did its job. You are obviously dealing with a very ignorant person. Be selfish, take what you can from his lessons, offer him nothing. If you can’t take anything from him then split.   

  • Thanks Mom! Welcome to the party :)

  • Hahaha Julia and you’re cool for a German ;)

  • Gina Ing

    Oh Jasmine, I discovered your blog beacuse our new French cousins went to Mongui and love it so I googled it and your blog came with the seven most beautiful  towns in Colombia and I have fallen in love with your sensitivity and the fact that you had a nice stay in my homeland. Now please do not waste energy on issues coming from CLOSED MIND PEOPLE.  I have learned from some of the most inspiring leaders and teachers in my life in the US.. THE MOST EXPENSIVE THING A HUMAN CAN OWN IS A CLOSED MIND.. It makes people boring and untolerant.  Keep taking your pictures. I also take pictures of people .  I am a people watcher. I have been poor myself. And  could have been that little boy in the picturel. But people dont know that little boy is probably happier that a lonely boy in the US with all his electronic games. We play with nature, Following ants, getting in creeks, claiming trees and disturbing birds nests, The most beautiful memoreis are at my Grandma Inez farm in a PRovince in Santander Colombia. Watching her wash her clothes in Rio Suarez, she made us real barbicue on the rocks by the river. We played and swam endlessly.  I see my children poor. They dont have a grandma who would give them wonderful memories. I thought I was poor when I was growing up. But I look back and now I feel I was so rich living for three months out of the year up in the heart of the Andes mountains in Colombia. Gracias Nonita Inez. I miss you. It is a lonely life in the mountains of California.. yes is beautiful.. but lonely. And loneliness is the worst poverty,,, mother Teresa said.  

  • Mat_smith

    When Medellin is flooded with exploitive arrogant bottom feeding drug using sex seeking scum bag gringos all living the dream, seeking to find themselves in a country far away from home because they can’t live a life that meets there aspiratins there! Can you blame them for taking such a view? Take off the blinkers!

  • Jerry Poore

    I have no ideas what this is about. I m an American living in Cartagena and have been for over ten years.  Aside from a litle petty theivery (which I also had in the US, Panama and many other countries) the only problem I have is with the crazy impatient drivers, yes the same ones that will stand in live at a bank for an hour like sheep but if you put them behind the wheel of a car they turn into maniacs. Chill out please.  I stay away from political discussion with Colombians. They are politacal neophites. I actually talked to a woman who never heard of the FARC.

  • NorminOklahoma

    I have recently returned to Colombia to purchase a residence after a several decade absence. I remember sitting in my junior high classroom of three walls and seeing every day the panorama of the Cauca River valley with the snow-capped Volcan de Huila rising majestically from the plain. I am 56 years old, so it is a memory I have carried for for some time with great fondness. I can understand your love of Colombia, and your hurt at being labeled “racist” in your newly adopted country. I believe that feelings of insecurity and inadequacy are present in almost everyone, different people compensate for them in different ways. You may find answers and support through self-reliance and conscious improvement, others simply place blame elsewhere. It is possible your pictures brought to the surface some feelings of inadequacy or embarrasement in your teacher and he responded by projecting. Face it, Americans are easy targets. As an instructor, is his job to draw out and support your creativity, not strangle it.The fact is, the problem is not you, it is your teacher, but you still have to face him tomorrow. Perhaps understanding the origin of his hostility will help.
    Targeted questions soliciting his views and expertise could help get the two of you back on track.. Let him know his insensitivity hurt you (you have to be pretty secure to do this) and proceed to re-establish rapport through questions, such as, “Your criticism the other day affected me, I have never seen such an expression on the face of a child, I felt compelled to take the foto, what does his expression indicate he is thinking? Does the picture cause the viewer to ask that question? Etc.  A question puts you in control, and makes your teacher feel more important. Good luck, I enjoy your blog.

  • I’m well aware of what goes on in Medellin with many of the visiting foreign men here… but I don’t think I should be lumped in the same category as them, as a 26-year-old female who isn’t looking for coke or whores.

  • Shahana

    hi doing a piece on ladies preferring to stay at hotels with women only floors. would u be interested in being interviewed online?

  • Cerenatee

    I can see both sides. The graffiti and the gun brings to mind how stereotypically drug infested Colombia is. The little boy looks awkward and poor, like the the “feed the children” fund commercials you see. On the other hand, those are the most popular shots because they’re so emotional and reaches at people’s fears and heart strings. While your teacher was so out of line it’s not funny, I think you can do better than those. You have a love for Colombia, a passion really, that reaches deep into the core of the city. I can see those shots as a tourist. Show me the heart of Colombia. Show me the families, the beauty, the parts of Colombia that only a lover would see. Maybe in his clumsy, insulting, crass way, that’s what your teacher was trying to say.

    Mat-Smith, those gringos are hated in America also. If we can’t control them here, we definitely can’t control them there. Don’t hate on the 99% for the 1% everybody hates.

  • Cerenatee

    I apologize if I offended you in any way with my comment. The pictures you took are classic and appeal to the viewer’s emotions. I just know how multi-dimensional every city is. Going beyond classic, overlooking the money shot, to the heart of why you love the city, the culture, the people. That’s passion also. It’s the little smiles all day long that makes me fall in love. 

    If I’ve come off negative I apologize. I love your blog and your spirit.

  • No offense at all… I appreciate your comments, they are actually constructive :) And thanks for stopping by.

  • Thanks but I don’t stay at hotels with women only floors…. I didn’t even know they existed to be honest.

  • Thanks but I don’t stay at hotels with women only floors…. I didn’t even know they existed to be honest.

  • Matthew B

    That’s funny that you would be called a “racist”.  You don’t even look like a typical “american”(white).

  • DT33445

     I never saw what you are talking about in Medellin where I have spent about 2 months and know many local families. I do not drink, use drugs or smoke and am generally a pretty astute observer who is fluent in Spanish. I never saw cocaine anywhere in Colombia although I have ridden most of the roads on my motorcycle which I rode there from Florida after I figured out how to ride it, and out of the approximately 20 girls and their families that I got to know well there, only 2 occasionally used marijuana. I am an honorary member of the motorcycle club, Los Caleños, in Cali (Colombia, not California) and no one in this club used any drugs on any of our trips. Colombians just do not have the money after taking care of their families for this kind of nonsense. I understand that La FARC exports from the Colombian jungles to the US via Mexico, but I think you are confusing Medellin with Los Angeles and South Florida where it seems every other person is high on drugs. Have you actually seen first hand any of what you write about?

  • Hi Jasmine! I totally know what you mean about it being hard to be American on the road (although, I haven’t traveled for nearly as long as you have!). I remember when I was in Panama City there was this guy who HATED America and Americans (therefore, me) so much that he was appalled at the idea of having a layover at LAX (or maybe another airport in the US?) to get to China. It was absurd! 

    I’m also thinking of going to Australia soon and have heard that I might “get it bad” (I still don’t know what they meant by that)  because I’m Asian (I guess there’s issues with that there? Who knows) but even worse for being American. Then, again, that was just the opinion of one group of guys. I’ll see what happens when I actually get there! Loving your blog, btw :)

  • I wouldn’t worry too much about Aus. While it’s true there is definitely some racial tension to be found there, I personally had no problem aside from the incident mentioned above and in fact found Aussies to be pretty welcoming towards me overall. I wouldn’t worry too much :) Thanks for visiting!

  • I wrote an article not long ago about why I don’t think Canadians should wear the Maple Leaf on their backpack.  One of the main reasons revolved around the fact that many do so to avoid not being mistaken as American.  I think it’s a shame that you have to endure everything you do just because of where you are from.  I wish people could just judge one another as individuals and strip away everything else.

  • DT33445

    Here is the problem. There is no transit waiting area in the US. Anyone transiting the US has to pay $160 and obtain a visa to change planes in the US, and they may get rejected which means no refund of the $160. People in Costa Rica used to hate doing this when the only way they could get to Europe was change planes in Miami. But, things are changing. Panamá is building 2 more International airports and Tocumen is being expanded tremendously. The economy of Panamá is white hot with zero effective unemployment and GDP growth of 11%. Its credit rating is now equal to the US and will soon surpass the US. Panamá is expected to have no debt by the end of 2017. I expect there will be flights from Panamá to everywhere in the world without transiting the US before long. I have a girlfriend there whom I met in Costa Rica in 2005. We tried to visit the Presidential Palace in November 2005 but were blocked by a single guard who said only, “hijo de Bush” (son of Bush). It turned out that Bush Jr.was secretly visiting the Panamanian president while on a trip to Brazil, but is known in Panamá simply as “hijo” or “son”. My girlfriend explained that everyone in Panamá hates Americans, firstly for not permitting them into the Canal Zone in their own country for nearly a 100 years, but secondly because Bush (in Panamá Bush will always mean Bush Sr.) had killed over 200 Panamanians in 1989 during the bombing of Panamá to capture Noriega (DOD says no civilians were injured or killed) who he had put into power in the first place as Director of the CIA. In Panamá I wear a woven bracelet from Colombia with Colombia’s colors (normally I avoid any jewelry, watch or dark glasses and wear faded clothing always with long blue jeans to avoid potentially dangerous attention), and I only speak Spanish, normally with my girlfriend. People in Panamá sometimes ask me if I am Colombian, and I let them think that I am. In fact, it was one of my proudest moments when a bellhop asked me if I was from Colombia when he heard me speaking.

  • Janine

    I’m really proud of you cuz. Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s your life … live, love, laugh.

  • Thanks for visiting Janine! :)

  • Dorine Em Meersschaut

    hey yasmine, im a female expat also here in Medellin, living in loma de los bernal and looking for a real job (im allready teaching english some hours a week but looking for more hours and a stable job) it d we cool if we get to meet!! my email is dorine.em.meersschaut@gmail.com dont hesitate to contact me or other expats. i’m really looking forward to meet some other expats

  • Hi Dorine,

    We have a couple of different entrepreneur/professional groups in the city. Join the Facebook groups here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/199842056694749/?ref=ts and here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/MedellinEntrepreneursSociety/?ref=ts

  • DF Bong

    I hope you can take comfort in the fact that maybe your teacher
    didn’t do what he did because you’re an American. I may be wrong, but I
    think he may have done the same thing even if the photographer was of
    another nationality.

    When I was in Indonesia, I
    came across many people who feel the need to defend their country’s
    image. They know the world sees them in an unflattering light and they
    want to tell the world that, really, their country isn’t that bad.
    Therefore, anything that goes against the patriotic narrative of “we’re
    not that bad” is seen as an attack on the country. The thing is, there are so many facets of any country, both good and bad, and both are equally relevant to its identity.