Is it ever right to hide your nationality?

Ushuaia, the hotbed of Argentinian feelings about the nearby Malvinas/FalklandsWhile hitchhiking around Europe in the 80s I met a German guy who pretended to be an Icelander, and even had the Iceland flag on his backpack. He was keen to  escape the negative perception he feared he would get as a German on the roads of France or Italy. (He also presumed that young ladies would be more curious about an Icelander and want to know more about his homeland, but that’s another story). He even told me how well his cover story had evolved over the summer he’d spent on the road, and could now repeat a string of useful facts about his newly adopted nation.

I’ve met more than a few Americans who try to pass off as Canadians on their travels to avoid hostility (long before the Bush years), and I’ve met Canadians who proclaim their un-American identities as their first utterance, for fear of being mistaken for their southern neighbours. The maple leaf flag is used as the unspoken symbol to ward off evil.

There is an irony here, in that many Americans I’ve met have been humbled by the overwhelming hospitality they have received on their travels, ESPECIALLY in countries with whom their government has quarrels (I’m thinking particularly of Syria here, but I’m sure American readers can add their own experiences).

Last year we hired a driver to take us from Damascus to Beirut, and this articulate young Syrian shared with us his experiences of meeting people from around the world. When I asked him if he had many American visitors, he replied that they didn’t. “They don’t like Syrians; I don’t know why”. On the other hand I read on countless blogs written by Americans travellers who declare that they would like to go to the Middle East but feel it’s too dangerous, the implication being that they might be kidnapped or killed by terrorists.

Too often we fear that people will hold us, as tourists, responsible for the actions of our government. That we will be made to pay for the wrongs that people feel have been inflicted on their nations. But the reality is thankfully much more pragmatic.

From our experience people are intelligent enough to separate the consequences of a nation’s foreign policy from the welcome they give to an individual traveller from that country. We received nothing but warmth and kindness on our visit to Argentina, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of their conflict with the UK.

I might have some very strong disagreements with the policies of the UK government, but I still feel priveleged to hold a British passport and would not choose to hide my identity on my travels. In fact, being open with others about our opinions on international politics has led to many memorable conversations along the way.

It might suit the US and UK governments not to have thousands of tourists visiting the countries with which they are in dispute. A open flow of tourism can, after all, lead to a mutual understanding and a certain interdependence over time.

For those visitors who would like to visit a part of the world where they worry about their national standing, I would say look around and find out what those who have actually been there are saying. It’s quite likely that you will be safe to go, you won’t need to adopt an alter ego, and you will be greeted with open arms.

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38 Responses to “Is it ever right to hide your nationality?”

  1. Very thought provoking post. Fear is often the cause of this habit. I knew an American backpacker who had been telling everyone he was Canadian. I called him out on it, between me and him of course, and he told me that he literally thought he would be killed if anyone knew he was an American. Fear can create this freaky kind of paranoia and it could even take away a measure of your travel joys. Thanks for this great post!

    June 12, 2010 at 11:36 am
  2. Thanks JR. It is a paranoia, and the fear of the unknown can be quickly dispelled by just doing it and going to these places. American foreign policy may be very unpopular around the world but Americans are often regarded as the some of the most friendly and likeable visitors.

    June 12, 2010 at 12:05 pm
  3. Personally, I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I’m American when I’m traveling, and have never felt threatened. In China, people got very excited when I told them I was from the USA. I always separate a government from it’s people, and I tend to assume that others will do the same. I mean, I don’t run around waving an American flag, or trying to talk to everyone about politics, but have never thought to lie when asked where I’m from (even when I wished I was from somewhere else during those Bush years…haha). I just try to be a good traveler.

    June 13, 2010 at 2:35 am
  4. Actually I have a similar story. (amazing you always wrote something I really sympathize. That’s what good writer is I think :) Its a joke. We said whenever we do something embarrasing in foreign country, pretend to be we are Japanese. You know our history so we say it as a joke. Usually not many knows wither Korean or Japanese so it’s easy to do. :) hahabut I’m very proud to be a backpacker from Korea. Do I always brought little souvenir represent Korea.
    Nice one Andy!

    June 13, 2010 at 8:13 am
  5. When you travel abroad ( or around US ), people meet and greet and get to know YOU- a traveler, a personality, not the country you are from.

    They might not like your country or your government, but they are still anxious to learn about where you are from, your culture, nationality from YOU.

    And that’s my understanding of ” responsible travel ” – as a tourist you learn about the place you are visiting, and as an ambassador of your country you share your knowledge and experience with anybody who is open minded and is willing to learn.

    June 13, 2010 at 8:21 am
  6. Karen #

    While travelling in the 70’s, neither Americans or Germans were very popular in Greece. I found this out when in a coffee shop in Athens. I ordered my tea and when the waiter brought it he asked if I was American or German. With a smile I answered “American”. Whereupon he took my tea back and asked me to leave. However, 99 percent of the time then and now, if you do not act arrogant and respect the culture of the county your are in then you will be well received. It does seem to me that international relations will improve the most through individual and personal contact between ordinary citizens.

    June 13, 2010 at 1:58 pm
  7. Nice post, Andy. I’m sure it generally holds true but let me share that 2 years ago, I was traveling with an Isreali friend in Southern China. We came to an eating place where a guy was making fresh noodles. My friend (a Chinese language student) was fascinated and started to practice his Mandarin with the noodle guy. It was a short merry chatting where they were going to exchange knowledge by teaching my friend how to make noodles and he teaches him English. From his fez we guessed he was muslim. Then he asked my friend where he’s from. When he replied, the man stopped talking to him and started to mutter under his breath. My friend kept asking what he was saying but I said I don’t understand to avoid any trouble even if I did. (He was not cursing him or anything, just muttering his take on the Palestinian issue).

    June 13, 2010 at 6:07 pm
  8. Thanks for sharing all the great stories. Juno, the rivalry between Korea and Japan is very famous, and you’re quite right, western folks can’t distinguish between a Japanese and Korean person easily, so you can play that trick very well. I’m sure the Japanese do the same :-)

    Lilliane, you know as I was writing this I also thought of Israelis, and how they are pereceived around the world due to their government’s actions. I too have met a few Israelis on my travels; all have been proud to say where they were from and all received a warm welcome. But I don’t expect that this is universal, and your story confirms this.

    Thanks to all for your stories.

    June 14, 2010 at 8:32 am
  9. TJ #

    interesting stories. I have to admit, I have done this. As an American tourist that has traveled the globe over the past 40 years. I discovered that travel got easier when I was thought of as a French tourist. I am fortunate enough to speak fluent French. Even in France I am treated like a Frenchman. One year I purchased a jacket with a Norwegian flag on it so strangers wouldn’t assume I was American. There are many times and many places where we are not welcomed, I have simply found a way to fit in and enjoy the culture of many countries. I have never questioned it or even thought that there are others doing the same thing.I love to travel and I realize, and agree with others, that it is getting more widespread realizing that we are not welcomed in some places on this planet. I will continue to travel and enjoy the differences that so many countries have to offer. I only wish the world was a kinder, gentler place.

    June 14, 2010 at 11:27 am
  10. I’ve never had to hide my identity but being a hyphenated American has given met the flexibility to choose what I tell someone I am. When I lived in France in 05, many of my non-French speaking American friends had a hard time in Paris. One waiter refused to serve them upon learning they were American but everyone was more than pleasant to me. Finally, my friends began to say they were Canadian and allow me to speak for them when we went out so that they could have an easier time

    June 14, 2010 at 11:56 am
  11. Interesting article. Personally, I’ve never faked my nationality before but when I travel, it is common for people to guess my nationality incorrectly. It’s quite fun at times but can also be irritating….The most common guess is Chinese, followed by Taiwanese, then Singaporean. Probably because the places I visit get more tourists from these countries. just fyi, I’m Malaysian =)

    June 14, 2010 at 12:30 pm
  12. Jelena #

    Great post and so very true, since it works for other nations in the same way.

    I come form Serbia and, because of the history of conflicts that my region went through during the 90s, I always have a feeling that I would be misjudged just because of where I come from. Whereas, in reality, most people would find it hard even to locate my country on the map. Yet, sometimes it makes you feel safer to claim to be from elsewhere…

    During a conference in Istanbul a couple of years ago, a colleague from Croatia said: “I’ve spent this weekend being a tourist in Istanbul. It is gorgeous, but, the Turks get too pushy when they see a fair-skinned woman on her own. So, I’ve been telling them that I come from Bosnia (also a Muslim country). Amazing how they change the attitude”.

    At that point I had to admit that I spent the previous weekend doing exactly the same: being ‘a Bosnian’ in the big city… With the only difference that I casually put the scarf on as well.

    And, it worked.

    June 14, 2010 at 2:31 pm
  13. Thank you for the many excellent stories. There’s also been some good discussion on Twitter around this topic. It seems that there are some places where people feel real danger, but maybe a lot more where revealing your nationality is likely to lead to rudeness, lack of service or a closed door. And it’s not only American who face these dilemmas. Lilian, I wonder if in people mistaking you for other nationalities, is there any consequence in terms of warmer/cooler welcome?
    (BlackinCairo, I really enjoyed a read of your blog too!)
    Thanks all for contributing to a lively debate.

    June 14, 2010 at 6:04 pm
  14. Fernanda Da Silva #

    Very nice article. I have a different story to tell not involving politcs issues among countries.
    I have frequently chosen to hide where I’m from during my travels. I’m a young Brazilian girl.
    some people around the world have the perception that all Brazilian girls are “easy”. I now
    understand that this perception comes from the Carnival image that my country likes to advertise around the globe. I have been offended by some ignorant guys during my travels when I show no interest of going on a date with a guy, for example. It’s sad that this happens bcz I’m very proud of where I’m from. Most of the time I’m treated really well when I say I’m from brazil. But I have to be careful (specially with guys). That’s my story.

    June 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm
  15. Thank you Fernanda for sharing a very different perspective. I hadn’t heard that sterotype of Brazilian girls before, I only know of the warm and positive image that Brazilians have in general (esp. in Europe).

    June 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm
  16. Cam #

    Definitely an interesting discussion. As I Canadian, I must confess that I am guilty of “proclaiming my Un-American identity” when overseas.
    I don’t know why. I love the States. I love Americans. But for some reason we Canadians hate being grouped with Americans. Maybe its a little brother complex? I think Kiwi’s and Scots can relate… 😉

    June 16, 2010 at 5:16 am
  17. I’m sure they can, Cam. I remember the furore when I was in Berlin and they put up a sign at the airport gate for Cardiff, England. A lot of very unhappy Welsh people!!

    June 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm
  18. Hi Andy! Just thought I would let you know that your post was one of my favourites in my Friday Five segment this week.

    Keep up the great writing!

    June 18, 2010 at 12:17 pm
    • thanks Verity! Appreciate the mention.

      June 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm
  19. It is funny you mention the Maple leaf emblazoned on backpacks of Americans. Every time my husband and I leave the country my mom always declares “You must get a Maple Leaf sticker.” My husband and I have never done it. We have always found when people find out we are American they are very interested in chatting with us. The problem we have found in the UK is that until we say more than a few words, most of the rural locals think we are Londoners on holiday and don’t want anything to do with us. :)

    June 19, 2010 at 11:30 pm
  20. For the most part, the scariest travel experiences I’ve had came about not specifically because I am American, but because I have blond hair, fair skin and a certain body shape. Changing the flag on my pack won’t change those things, and hair dye and baggy clothes only go so far.

    The military police in Burkina Faso didn’t care about my exact nationality, my appearance gave me away as a foreigner who is worth detaining for bribes. In Indonesia I had much trouble because of my gender and my appearance. While volunteering at a clinic in a small town, the wives of the town asked the director of the clinic to tell me not to say hello to their husbands because I was “distracting” them. While walking on the street some wives would glare at me or refuse to talk to me despite the fact that I helped their sister give birth just days before.

    Sure, I’ve occasionally endured some direct anti-American sentiment, but I’m happy to handle that with grace in the hopes of changing people’s perception of Americans. The rest of it I haven’t quite figured out how to handle just yet.

    June 20, 2010 at 2:18 pm
  21. Thanks Jackie and Nora
    Nora, you’re right that Londoners have a negative image in the rest of the UK (I guess like Parisians do in France, New Yorkers in the US, etc). I hope you got the right reception once they worked out where you were from.
    Jackie, good point about other factors coming in ahead of nationality. I’ve heard about similar experiences to the one you had in Indonesia. What can you do, other than go about your business with grace regardless of the reception? Sounds like you’ve managed to handle it well.
    Thanks both for sharing.

    June 20, 2010 at 10:43 pm
  22. I actually have three different passports, united states, venezuela, and italy. Everytime I travel to venezuela I travel with my american passport and they always interrogate me why i dont have my venezuelan one! (because i dont want to go to the venezuelan army!!) LOL

    If you are from a nation that runs itself backwards then yes I think its right! lol

    June 28, 2010 at 5:04 pm
  23. On a different take on this denying of one’s nationality, I tend to deny any presumption that I’m Chinese – even though I’m ethnically Chinese – and say that I’m British/English – which I am nationality-wise. What I discovered, especially in countries like Morocco where the locals love to tout, is that Chinese (and Japanese) people are seen as the most lucrative of tourists and are easy targets. It’s also that I can shake off the camera/hang-out-in-clusters/whatever-mentioned-in-that-East-vs-West-post-you-tweeted-about stereotypes.

    But then, despite whatever’s in the blood, I’m an Englishman at heart.

    June 29, 2010 at 12:13 am
  24. I’m English with dual English/Australian nationality, and don’t think twice about saying where I come from. Except once, when a group of us were accosted in the middle of the Panamanian rainforest by two men in camouflage gear, faces smeared with grease, waving AK47s and shouting ‘Foreigners to the right; Panamanians to the left’. This gave me pause for thought. If they were Colombian guerillas I was better being a Panamanian; if they were Panamanian forces, it was safer to be a foreigner.In the end truth won out. Not because of any national pride, but because I’m blonde and was unlikely to get away with a lie. Thankfully they turned out to be Panamanian Police (called Ki-kay and Archangel lol) so I lived to tell the tale and got a great group photo for the album. So my advice: if your safety is at stake, lie through your teeth – providing you’ve a chance of getting away with it.

    June 29, 2010 at 12:24 am
  25. I never thought about hiding my nationality, I’m Italian and never had to hide it.
    It’s funny coz I’m not the “typical” Italian woman one could expect, with dark hair and eyes: I have fair skin, green eyes, light hair. Sometimes I play with my nationality as nobody ever guess it at first glance – they say I’m Polish, English, Russian, Armenian (!!!) but never guess I’m Italian.
    But I’m never ashamed to reveal my nationality in the end.
    I hate stereotypes and prejudice. Let differences be the pretext to widen our knowledge!

    June 29, 2010 at 4:35 am
  26. Thanks again to all for sharing some enlightening perspectives. I had imagined that it was mainly an American issue, so it’s fascinating to hear of so many others who choose to hide/disguise their nationality. I like your closing line Giulia; let differences be the pretext to widen our knowledge. Very true.

    June 29, 2010 at 10:38 am
  27. TonyW #

    During the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the War of American Aggression), many American men of draft age became very familiar with Canada and its major cities. Many of us made excursions to learn about Vancouver, Toronto, and/or Montreal as possible new homes as an alternative to being drafted and sent to Vietnam. That knowledge, combined with an item or two of Canadian clothing, such as Roots shoes, a maple leaf patch, and some Canadian money, made it very easy to pass as Canadian in social situations. In 1970’s Europe, Americans were no longer loved for their help in defeating Hitler, but were generally disliked because of Vietnam. Pretending to be Canadian was an easy way to avoid unpleasant discussions of Vietnam, but you had to know something about hockey and have an opinion on the Quebec separatist movement. In all, it wasn’t worth pretending to be something that you weren’t, and I don’t think that anyone tried to do that for very long.

    Extra points, though, for the Canadian government, which made it possible for draftees to become landed immigrants and to establish new lives in Canada.

    October 17, 2010 at 9:01 pm
  28. Brilliant discussion, very informative, and a very well laid article Andy.

    There’s prejudices and stereotyping all over the world. I remember a few years back Frenchman came to Egypt packing lots of water because he expected the plane to land in the desert! and that he was going to be taken straight to his tent!!

    People sometimes hide their nationalities because, even though you can almost always separate the people from their governments and the actions of their governments, sometimes it’s not that easy or that simple. Often it’s easier to just pretend to be someone else to avoid getting into certain arguments.

    However, I think that sticking to your nationality, even if you don’t get served, because it’s these little arguments and conversations that add to the overall travel experience.

    October 17, 2010 at 10:09 pm
  29. Jtraveler #

    I’m guilty of claiming that I was canadian. I was traveling around australia when the US started the war in iraq. There were protest all over the world and it was a scary time to be an american abroad. Iwas in oz for 3 months. I’m also east indian and am always mistaken for a national from neighboring countries when traveling. I’ve been asked if I was from england, brazil, italy, greece, israel, pakistan, chile. I don’t mind though I like being able to fit in. Usually american isnt their first guess.

    October 19, 2010 at 3:08 am
  30. Jtraveler #

    Also boats also fly the flags of different countries toavoid pirates and drawing unfriendly attention to themselves. My friend semester at sea in college and off the coast of africa and around asia the flew flags of latin america and were told to stay low.

    October 19, 2010 at 3:12 am
  31. I have to admit, as a Canadian, the part about the whole “being mistaken for their southern neighbours” rings true, in a way. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I try and mention my nationality the first chance I get; I simply don’t like the fact that North Americans are always labeled as Americans. Obviously the accent gives away the fact that I’m not from the U.K or from any other English-speaking nation but people’s first guess always seems to be the United States.

    I don’t go out of my way to let people know I’m not American, but I don’t like them jumping to that conclusion because I’m from North America.

    March 22, 2011 at 12:51 am
  32. It’s interesting because I’m both American (US-born, lived most of my life there) and Australian, the latter passport acquired via my husband and having lived there the last five years. When people ask where we’re from we always answer ‘Australia’ because that’s where I lived most recently. But I usually add in that I’m originally American. It’s a good experiment because I get to see people’s reactions to both. I’m never afraid to say I’m American but that doesn’t define me. When we lived in France I remember getting a very positive reaction to John being Aussie and a mixed reaction to my nationality. I am the kind of person who couldn’t care less what people think, so I would never hide it. Lately I haven’t had any negative reactions to my being American, but I’m sure that won’t always be so.

    March 22, 2011 at 12:53 am
  33. I worked in the US out in Colorado for a few years and a few times I would be asked by Americans of Irish descent to apologise for what England did to Ireland.
    My general feeling is if a person doesn’t want to be friendly to simply because of your nationality them they are not worth knowing anyway.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:24 am
  34. Hiding your nationality? If that is OK? It’s lying to someone. Is lying OK? 😉

    It was in the past, when you were US citizen & Mr. W was playing president. But only because the travelers always had to listen to the same stuff wherever you came. The ones you meet on the road, didn’t vote that st*pid guy.

    I understood them. It’s good to have a good talk, but if it’s always the same & always about your country & how bad it is… Can get boring.

    On the other side, it’s still lying. LOL

    July 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm
  35. When i was in Croatia and the Balkans 6 years ago I thought i would have to pretend im Canadian (which, until you see my passport isnt hard for me, im Acadian, with a very french name). I learned quickly 1. You dont really fool anyone 2. Many people were excited to meet me.

    Ok, so a few people, learning im american, got a look of fear in their eyes and quickly backed away (i dont know why) but more often, they would get excited and want to talk to, and touch me.

    The first expierience i really had with this (so i had already learned that Americans aren’t too common visitors in this part of the world) was with a man in his late 60s. I had been taken to a town festival by my hostel mom and she had told me to pretend i was her daughter so not to attract unwanted attention (i assumed this was because people hate Americans).

    NOOOOO. This man in his 60s heard me say something in english to the hostel mom, turned around; wide-eyed like a kid at christmas, and jumped at me with his arms out. It scared the crap out of me (being jumped at) and i instinctivly jumped back a bit myself. The man, realizing what he did (and it was obvious this was out of character for him, he was just that excited, and was going to bear hug me), apologized and grabbed my hand in both of his, shaking my had vigerously exclaiming he wanted to shake hands with a real american.

    Turns out, in his 60+ years, i was the first American he had ever met.

    During my trip, i discovered it was about 50/50…people either wanted to shake my hand/hug me or ran away (i dont know why the second. It was never in disgust, always with a look of fear).

    After this first man that had never met an american, i decided that no matter where you come from, people have their own notions, and being an american doesnt make people hate you. Many people, after learning i had no croatian background, family or friends…and was just there to visit their beautiful country, actually felt honoured/prideful that there country was beautiful enough to make (an) american visit.

    Ps: out of 5 weeks travelling the Balkans, i only met 3 other americans…it took 2 weeks to meet the first one (though i heard about ‘the other american’ on day 2 and everyone assumed we knew each other. Hahahahaha)

    July 15, 2011 at 7:43 am
  36. Andy Jarosz #

    Danib, what a great story! Living proof if ever needed that curiosity wins the day (although I too am surprised that people were scared?)

    Thanks to everyone for their contributions and as Melvin says, no point in lying :-)

    July 15, 2011 at 7:51 am
  37. I’m from Romania and our nationality gets a lot of bad press mostly throughout Western Europe, but not only. Every time I travel I don’t try to hide my nationality. If somebody looks down on me for being Romanian, then frankly, they have a problem to deal with, not me. On top of that I would not want to be in the company of a person who ignores the fact that nobody chose their nationality and does not even give the benefit of doubt to a newly met human being.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:53 pm