North Texas Daily

‘Minding the gap’ as an American abroad

‘Minding the gap’ as an American abroad

April 07
02:32 2016

Sidney Johnson | Staff Writer


We Americans have the power to change many things on this planet, but one thing remains unaltered: our American persona outside our borders. Stigmatized as loud-mouthed and entitled before our individual character is disseminated, we are ultimately known for our poor behavior abroad. Unfair or not, this charge holds a foundation based on the actions of some of our citizens in recent years.

University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for foolishly stealing a propaganda poster from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang. The nation’s state-run media, KNCA, stated Warmbier’s theft was considered an “act of hostility” against North Korea. While he will likely serve none of his allotted days swinging a pickaxe, it is at the very least a national embarrassment and headache for those charged with securing his return.

Warmbier, a brother at UVA’s Theta Chi, confessed that a deaconess from Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio offered him $10,000 if he returned with a trophy from the secluded nation. Unfortunately, the church’s senior pastor stated that deaconess didn’t exist and Warmbier wasn’t even a member of the church.

Although I sympathize with Warmbier’s predicament and feel his crime does not fit his punishment, I also understand that an American must be on their best behavior while abroad, especially visiting a nation as infamous and fiery as North Korea.

Last summer I attended a study abroad program in London, England and learned a good way of being sure you are not the recipient of any disdainful looks or colorful four-letter-words is simply being aware of the customs and doing your best to act like you belong there. But consciously committing a crime, like in Warmbier’s case, is different and only reinforces the negative brand we have been unable to scratch off.

Everyone in the Kim dynasty is without a sense of humor regarding Americans — apart from Dennis Rodman — and Warmbier undoubtedly knew this before he entered the country. Though the “national threat” rhetoric is an exaggeration, but Kim Jong-un is the “Supreme Leader” of his country and can jail whoever is brave enough to act up when visiting. To think he wouldn’t jump at the chance to embarrass an American abroad is naïve.

We must show utmost respect while in another country and Mr. Warmbier is learning this lesson in an unfortunate way. Our Bill of Rights is a bright-red cape we Americans must remove when leaving the fortress of solitude that is our country — some, unfortunately, forget this. Mind  the gap” in cultures when abroad, don’t be Mr. Warmbier. Exercise your best judgment — it’s a cold world out there.

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