Do You Travel With Prejudice? The Story of The Basketball Player and The Jockey

WHAT ARE STEREOTYPES… and where do they come from?

When you travel, do you anticipate certain behavior based on what you’ve read or heard?

Vintage WWI Dutch Map – Cartography with Global Stereotypes

Map with regional stereotypes

Did you grow up hearing certain stereotypes?

Asian View of Europe in WWI

Cultural Stereotyping in maps: Asian View of Europe in WWI

1915 German Map with Stereotypical Rhymes By Principality

Map with regional stereotypes: German map with rhymes

I love history. And old maps are things I love to collect, to see the stories they tell about lands that have changed names and borders.

I became fascinated by the stories in these old maps, in particular. Each cartographer and artist has something different to say about their friends and enemies. These maps show that stereotypes are nothing new. That got me to thinking about how we travel today. Do we carry our own stereotypical “maps” with us?

In my post on identity, My Secret Identity… Who Am I? I wrote about being mistaken for being Polish, Canadian, Ukrainian, and Russian at various times during my 10 years overseas. Rarely was American the first guess. I was never sure whether this was a good thing or not.

At first I thought, yes, it must be good, I’m blending in. But later, I wondered what differentiates a Canadian from a US American- why would people ask if I was Canadian? I was speaking Russian, wearing Turkish leather goods, going about my business at the local bazaars. What would have given people I met any idea that I was Canadian? (As I said before, in my best Seinfeld impression, “Not that there’s anything wrong with Canadians…)

What’s Wrong With Stereotypes?

What stereotype do you most dislike? For me, it’s when people have an attitude about Americans  (the “Ugly American”) based on what they have heard or seen before. As in, if I’m from Texas, I must be dumb. That one bothers me. A lot. But am I totally blameless? Have I never approached someone with a preconceived idea about their intelligence or probable reaction? Sadly not.

I spoke with a young lady in Oregon some years ago and told her I was dating after my divorce. “What do you mean?” (I never thought that was a hard statement to decipher, but apparently she couldn’t understand how I could date so far from “home”.) She continued, “Oh, I could never date anyone from a foreign country- I don’t like foreign accents…” Seriously?

Her prejudice colored her interactions with anyone not like her. She had no desire to travel- she had been to Mexico one summer and that was plenty. I left feeling sorry for her and thankful that she didn’t want to travel- she’d not make a good ambassador for us, that’s for sure!

Sometimes expats take on a new assignment and you overhear them speaking at the local cafes about “the locals” and whatever irritated them that day. Statements something like these:

  • He’s just some local… he doesn’t know anything…
  • Get one of the locals to make tea for us…
  • Give a couple bucks (pounds, lire, manats, etc.) to that local over there and tell her to get us some piva (beer)…

In your experience, have you ever heard about expats of some nationalities having a reputation for being provincial? In Baku, my students would often say they liked working for X but not for Y. When asked to elaborate, they responded with one of two comments: X respects us and Y does not; or, X is curious about us and wants to know us as people, but Y never cares.

Just like the maps above, prejudices and stereotypes give the impression that all people of one group are the same. When we buy into a stereotype, we close our minds to what could be discovered.

I’ve met French people in Paris who were not rude; I’ve had good conversation with Germans that were light and funny. I had a relationship with an Iranian who was one of the sweetest people I have known- yes he was stern on the outside, but he had a heart of gold inside. Based on my experience, when I now read the news about the religious fanatics in Iran, I can’t help but see a broad brush painting all Iranians in an unfortunate and unfavorable light.

Here’s an old ditty about stereotypes …

Heaven and Hell

Heaven Is Where:

The French are the chefs
The Italians are the lovers
The British are the police
The Germans are the mechanics
And the Swiss make everything run on time

Hell is Where:

The British are the chefs
The Swiss are the lovers
The French are the mechanics
The Italians make everything run on time
And the Germans are the police

Am I against this kind of humor? Of course not. People will make observations. When it becomes hurtful is the moment we take it to extremes and force people, or groups, into mental molds that aren’t real.

Tell It Like It Is…

One of the greatest T-Shirts I have ever seen was in London Heathrow Airport. A gentleman who must have been 7-1/2 feet (~2.25m) tall walked by me. He was tall- really tall– and thin. He was obviously used to getting stares and questions, and he was prepared.

On the front, his T-Shirt  read, “Just because I am tall does not mean I play Basketball“. I liked it so much I watched him walk away, and that’s when I really had to smile.

I laughed at the obvious stereotypical implication of the front, but it was the back of the shirt made me want to shake his hand.

Front: Just because I am tall does not mean I play Basketball,

Back: Anymore than you being short means you are a jockey!


Bravo! One small step for man, one giant leap for tolerance.

Map with regional stereotypes

Early Map with Cultural Stereotypes

And a Russian version…

Map with regional stereotypes

Russian Map, 1915


All maps presented here for non-commercial use courtesy of GeoCurrents



5 thoughts on “Do You Travel With Prejudice? The Story of The Basketball Player and The Jockey

  1. Once, when I lived in New Orleans a tourist in the French quarter asked me if I was Canadian. I never sorted that one out. In France, only one person has ever asked if I was an American. And she’d just returned from her vacation in New York. She said she “recognized my accent”. I’ve never been to New York and have nothing like a New York accent.

    I’m most often asked if I’m “anglais” (British), usually after I’ve slipped and said something in English.

    I’m asked so often if I’m from Belgium that I want to understand why. Am I doing something, sounding like or acting like someone from Belgium? What would that be like? Do I fit some stereotype of a person from Belgium?

    I’m also been asked if I’m German or Italian and even once if I was Swedish.

    I’ve gotten looks of astonishment when I say I’m an American. I’ve wondered if maybe I wasn’t what people were expecting. Maybe there’s an American stereotype I don’t match. But someone In Brittany explained to me that “Americans never come here.”

    Stereotypes are good to think about, all the way around.
    Thanks for another good blog.


    • Belgian? Now that’s a new one… I often got Polish or Ukrainian. How funny that you would also get that Canadian guess- we Americans must be doing something right if we’re no longer that obvious, or we’re getting further afield where people don’t expect us- a good thing either way.

      Speaking of which… it’s interesting that you have Texas, California and Oregon in your background. My family’s from Texas (Hill Country) but I was born in California while my dad was in the Navy- spent lots of time traipsing the hills and coastal valleys from San Diego to San Francisco areas and beyond. When my mom retired she moved to Grant’s Pass, OR and I have family now in Portland. Every time you mention a particular place, I keep thinking, maybe we passed on a street somewhere in time. Kind of amazing.


      • I also grew up in Ohio, went to college in Georgia and to medical school in New Orleans. But the longest time has been Portland Oregon. Then the lst couple of winters in Santa Cruz.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve passed on the street. Perhaps there’ll be an opportunity for us to meet in person one day. Life is funny like that.
        Alice 🙂


  2. Visiting my son in Guatemala just after the second US invasion of Iraq, we met up with a young Canadian couple – from Vancouver, they said. The man didn’t sound Canadian (couldn’t pronounce “oat and aboat” properly!), so I asked “Where before that?” The couple exchanged a doubtful look, then shrugged. “He’s from Texas”, she admitted. The presence of my obviously hippy son had eased me past the barrier…
    Thirty years before, I’d met plenty of pretend-Canadians with American accents – angry, betrayed and embarrassed over the invasion of Vietnam. Life is full of embarrassment for young idealists… I almost became an American, in my youth, so I could easily have become caught in the moral morass the US politicians create for their citizens – and indeed which MOST nations’ politicians create for theirs, at one time or another.

    Like you, Alice, I shrug off stereotypes as inevitable. Sometimes it seems that every time I mention my Australian origin, someone puts on a desperately inadequate Australian accent and says, “G’dye, mite!” Sometimes I sigh and say sternly, in as posh an English accent as I can manage, “We don’t all talk like Ned Kelly, you know.” Which of course is pretty stupid if they don’t know that Ned Kelly was a famous outlaw of the 1800s. What can you do?

    It was a great post of yours, this; thanks for taking the trouble!


    • Thanks for the kind words, Gordon. I find it interesting where all of us intersect in the expat world. I was having a conversation about this not long ago over on Broadsideblog with Caitlin Kelly-about how long you have to live someplace to “be one of them” or are you always an immigrant, an expat or a migrant. So many labels!

      When you tell someone of your Australian origins, do you say I’m Australian from the Caymans? Or do you say “I’m from the Caymans” since you represented the Cayman Chamber of Commerce?

      Funny you should mention Ned Kelly… when I was in Baku, Azerbaijan (working for the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan, oddly enough!) our book club (somebody) chose Ned Kelly as our book. I kept waiting for the redemption to appear, nope… just The End.

      But your point is well taken, we can’t stereotype every Australian as Crocodile Dundee and not every Texan is John Wayne or George W. Bush… most are likely somewhere in between. I dislike the line I get: “How come Americans don’t have passports? How come Americans can’t speak foreign languages?” I only wish I could put on “as posh an English accent” to put such questioners off- that might confuse them enough to change the subject…. what indeed can you do?

      I appreciate your joining in the conversations here. (Reading you latest post makes me glad that all our “snakes” are in across the river in Washington DC, not necessarily non-venomous, but at least not likely to bite me in the leg anytime soon!) 😉



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