“What happened to all of your indigenous people?”

… asked a 10-year-old boy at a primary school in rural Argentina about Native Americans. (I was in the middle of a presentation in Spanish about the U.S. to a roomful of kids.) This is a very astute question, but not one I expected. I was prepared to answer all kinds of inquires about regional food and whether we take a siesta, but not necessarily about the colonization of our Native Americans and why anyone would treat them so appallingly. Even more difficult is answering questions about slavery and 9/11 entirely in Castellano, which I speak comfortably but not with as much subtlety as English. I would even be challenged to answer these questions articulately in my native tongue.

Being a “cultural ambassador” is a delicate matter, especially when these sensitive topics arise and the audience to whom you’re speaking knows only what you tell them. The first impressions you give will stick and they may not meet another native for years. But rather than be intimidated by these questions, or assume that they are impossible to answer, foreigners should embrace the opportunity to start a dialog, whether it be with a crowd of rowdy 10-year-olds, knowledgeable adults, teenagers who don’t read the news, porteño-haters, Argentines who look down their noses at Uruguay, or anyone else.

In my opinion, people are more similar than different, meaning that we all have certain basic qualities, desires, and needs in common just from being part of the human race. Any traveler should remember these and use them to make real human connections, because the temptation to box ourselves in according nationality is too strong. This is not to say that cultural barriers do not exist; we all have different conceptions of time, space, relationships, communication, and many other things. However, focusing on those basic human impulses may help to transcend geographic barriers: the need for emotional connections to other people; the need for a routine, no mater how different from the routine back home; the desire to feel useful and contribute something to a community; and the desire to belong and be accepted.

Answering those tough questions is just one way of getting closer to a new country, as difficult as it may be. Feeling like the official representative from the U.S. creates an enormous amount of pressure, especially when someone hands you a microphone in front of a roomful of attentive listeners, but having the dialog is well worth the effort.

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