Urban myth or fact?
After years of suspecting this was an urban myth (but knowing deep inside that there was probably a grain of truth in it) I finally decided to Google ‘how many Americans own a passport’. Unfortunately, it is not an urban myth. Most sources suggest around 20-22% of all Americans over 18 have passports.
And how do you deal with this statement when delivered with gusto in the middle of a British dinner party?
You’re either yawning because you’ve heard it so often, or your hackles rise because you get fed up hearing it. Of course what they are really saying is ‘not many Americans travel’ and therefore ‘Americans are closed-minded, and thus we have exposed the root of the Americans’ problem.’ I heard it again the other day from a new acquaintance at a dinner party and it made me wonder how other expats deal with it.
American expats know the possible reasons for the low percentage of passport holders. They include:
1) For many Americans the two-week holiday allowance prevents much travel overseas. Only 14% of Americans will get a vacation of two weeks or longer this year.
2) The cost of travel from the United States to other continents is high. However, for someone to travel from Newcastle or London to Barcelona they will pay considerably less than an American will pay to travel from Dallas or Seattle to Barcelona.
3) Up until recently, Americans haven’t needed a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, but they may have traveled to these other countries several times.
4) At any given time 12%-17% of the US population live below poverty line. It is unlikely that these people will be able to travel abroad, or need a passport.
5) Compare university students in Minnesota going to Florida for Spring Break with people in Britain going to Ibiza for the raves: one needs a passport and one doesn’t, but is a rave in Ibiza any more culturally enlightening than Spring Break parties in Florida?
There is an important point in this statement that can be used for other examples:
If a Briton wants to cross the channel to bulk buy cheap booze in Calais they will need a passport. If an American wants to cross a state line for whatever reason, they don’t need a passport.
If a British student wants to expand their art history learning and have a semester in Rome, they will need a passport. If an American student wants to expand their theatre studies learning and have a semester in New York, they don’t need a passport.
If a mature British couple want to travel to the sun, they will need a passport, the mature American couple will not need a passport.
6) Some people believe there is enough in the United States for one lifetime and would rather spend their money on vacations around the States. This does not make them insular; it makes them curious about their own country.
If I mention this one, someone always has to say ‘yes, but while I lived in the States I met people who had never even been out of their own state!’ Howls of derision all round the table. I smile serenely. ‘You have to remember,’ I tell them ‘that many of these states are the same size as Great Britain. I know people here who have never been outside Britain.’ Polite napkin fluttering. For those who continue to press the issue I usually try to end the conversation one of two ways, depending on my mood:
‘But would you really want more Americans traveling here?’ Ha ha! The sly American really does have a sense of humour (relief is felt in waves across the table—mostly from husband).
‘So difficult to generalize 306 million people, who live in a country the size of Europe, isn’t it?’ More napkin fluttering usually resulting in husband finding the moment suitable for a joke about living with a pedant.
I am fortunate enough to have traveled to many American states while growing up and this broadened my mind considerably. I am sure those experiences helped form my world-view as much as world travel and living in Britain has.
I am a great advocate of travel. I love it. I truly believe it is healthy for the mind. And living overseas has indeed changed me. However, I am not sure that I subscribe to the point of view that Americans MUST travel overseas. I am not convinced this is the best way for every American to learn more about other people, or the world. If this were the case, then surely everyone should all visit every country in order to truly understand the rest of the world.
The next time someone proclaims ‘most Americans don’t even own a passport!’ what will you say?