In about one month I will be taking my first real trip to a foreign country. I've been to the basic Comfort Zone countries that Americans can visit without experiencing any severe culture shock – Canada, UK, etc. – but in late May I'm going to Brazil for a week. Don't worry, I'm not actually doing anything fun like going to Rio to party my ass off. My itinerary would make your grandmother jealous; let's just say that a lot of modern architecture will be toured and photographed.

One obvious rule when traveling is to avoid anything with "American" in its name unless you happen to be morbidly curious about just how ridiculous an image of Americans is held by people in other countries. Not that we do not give the rest of the world ample reason to think we are ridiculous, and not that Americans don't hold ridiculous misconceptions about foreigners who travel here (Japanese people all know karate! Everyone who speaks Spanish is from Mexico! Italians must eat pasta for every meal!) Rather than take offense, I enjoy learning about what people who have never been to the U.S. and may not know many Americans think of us. It's…revealing.

This is a list on Thought Catalog of 43 anecdotes relating to Americans traveling abroad and discovering what other people think of "American" food. It is fantastic. Add your own tales in the comments here if you want. Some of these I knew (The Japanese put corn in things to make them "American") or assumed (People around the world think Americans put ketchup on everything). Other things here were new to me. In Brazil, for example, "American" food items are drenched in mayonnaise. I never considered mayo a particularly "American" food – seems French, if anything – yet it makes sense that movies, TV, and advertising always show big jars of it in American kitchens and fridges. Finding mayo absolutely disgusting is all the motivation I need to make sure that I resist the urge to order American-style anything.

Of course stereotypes are full of holes and exceptions, but the one that comes closest to being valid is the foreign assumption that Americans put cheese on everything. We don't all do it, and we don't all put it on everything, but…let's face it, folks. We put a lot of cheese on things. Here in the Midwest it is difficult to find items on restaurant menus that are not covered in cheese (often of the liquid "nacho" variety). Oh, and ranch dressing. The entry that describes how in Finland, "American Sauce" is creamy ranch dressing is a bit too on the nose. A friend once worked in a popular chain restaurant – not the fast food variety – where 55 gallon Rubbermaid garbage cans were used to mix ranch dressing, such was the demand for the stuff on a daily basis. I have heard similar tales from restaurant staff coast to coast. While it is true that I live squarely in the heart of cheese-and-ranch country, I'm confident that these are traits found in all regions of the country to some degree.

Perhaps I'm the only one who sees great humor in this, but something about ordering a Tex-Mex platter in Germany and receiving Tortilla chips, mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, hot wings, hash browns, and potato wedges is priceless. Is it any more ridiculous than ordering "German food" in the U.S. and getting bratwurst and soft pretzels? I mean, most reasonably educated and self-aware Americans understand that our ethnic foods have been Americanized. Chinese takeout bears little resemblance to food served in China and Taco Bell is to Mexican Food what Disney World is to Detroit. While I will be visiting a large city with a lot of international visitors (Brasilia) and a major tourist destination (Iguazu) I hope I can enlighten at least one Brazilian or fellow tourist to the effect that, no, Americans do not all carry guns and eat french fries with every meal and drink Coke for breakfast and put cheese on everything.

I might have a moral dilemma about the last point, though. If we're being honest here, we kinda do. If there's anything we can't cover in cheese, bacon, and ketchup, I don't know what it is.

Oh, and apropos of the tale about Koreans putting whole hot dogs on "American pizza", my one horror story from the UK was discovering that kebab mystery meat (what goes into Gyros, essentially) can be and is a pizza topping. Come on. We're not animals. Let's maintain a little dignity.

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  1. fernando_g Says:

    That 1979 hit song, "Breakfast in America", by the British pop band Supertramp, pretty much sums up European stereotypes about the US..

    There is one verse:

    Kippers for breakfast
    Mommy dear, mommy dear
    Must have them in Texas
    'Cus everyone is a millionaire…….

    Yeah, right!

  2. Robert Says:

    Major Kong, thanks for the reminder. Went to London with my travel agent first husband back in the late 1980s. He was Panamanian-Chinese, living in San Francisco, so his culinary horizons were broad but irregular. He did not quite know what to make of cold baked beans as a breakfast food. In France, having truite meuniere for dinner, he paused, looked around the hotel dining room, and whispered to me, "nobody else is eating the head. Don't they know it's the best part?"

  3. Glen h Says:

    Alan C. I'd eat all of those including the squid ink! But then my tastes are a bit odd.

  4. chris Says:

    Hong Kong is an interesting subject when it comes to "junk" food. While you are correct that "sesame chicken" is not a particularly popular dish here (and much less so on the mainland), the dishes you find in strip mall chinese joints are relatively NOT Americanized – and where they are, it is often for the HEALTHIER! Hong Kong cuisine is a strange mix of traditional dishes and wartime/colonized adaptation foods. Sweet n sour pork can be found, exactly the same here – and is the closest, as even in America it's often served without vegetables. But in HK you'll find things flavored just like beef n broccoli – but using even cheaper, chewier beef, and NO BROCCOLI. Most veggies are ordered a la carte here, so you'll get a plate of JUST spinach fried in garlic, and a plate of pork fried rice may have no veggies – just a higher quality version of those little red cubes. Those red cubes are char siu and change the dish's name to char siu fried rice but otherwise it's the same dish (but much oilier here). If you want "veggies" you may want "American" fried rice, which uses the corn, peas, and carrots medley you can find in your own freezer case. AND THEY FUCKIN LOVE SPAM!! So much spam. But not even real Spam – this is cheaper, blander, and doesn't get crispy when fried. It's that dirt cheapest "ham" you see in the cold case… pink blob. Also, pizza – thousand island sauce (as in no tomatoes) and seafood toppings. Seriously, this is the only place I've ever seen with less regard for oil and salt than ol' Murrica. There are healthy options, but some are very new – often Western-inspired – and salad (aside from fruit salad w/extra mayo) is still not widespread. The food can be amazing, too, of course – and it's very international (amazing, cheap Japanese food, both sushi and izakaya dishes :9) – but most people have a very strong tolerance for salty and oily. Killer fried noodles.

  5. Kaleberg Says:

    When I was a kid back in the mid-60s, my family went to Europe for a long summer vacation. We broke down and had American food twice. Once at the Sears in Barcelona which had good hamburgers and fries, but the milkshakes has a slightly off flavor. The other time was at the Wimpy's in Paris. That was an outpost of a British burger chain named for the character in Popeye. It was pretty good and close enough to American for us. The rest of the time we ate local food which was also pretty darned good if I remember correctly.

  6. hillwomp Says:

    As an American, I think going to American chains and themed restaurants in a foreign country is an absolute kick. Food quality and taste have nothing to do with it. It's all about the experience! Foreigners visiting the US can't really be called tourists unless they do the same. Just bear in mind, though, since you're a man, if you want to be treated well and have a good time in pretty much any foreign land, drop the innate American desire to be liked, be respectful and excruciatingly patient, but treat all the men as if they are a total bore, and all the women as if you're madly in love with them.

  7. casey Says:

    It's not just "American food" that foreigners have an amusing lack of knowledge of, in my experience. Americans do (non-fine dining) foreign food better than anywhere else I've been. We don't give ourselves enough credit for that. Chinese food in Europe or Italian food in Asia, for instance, is almost certainly going to be disgusting and sad, whereas some random foreign food in some random American city might actually be OK. (*)

    With the exceptions of kebabs and French food everywhere, and Indian food some places, I try to completely avoid "ethnic" food when outside the US, because it's almost always shitty, in a way that is not only unpalatable but ethnically insulting, a culinary bowdlerization — whatever the local cuisine is, but with a little bit of "ethnic sauce" on top.

    (*) Well, excluding the New England/Midwest puritanical 'blandness belt'. Mexican food in say New Hampshire or Minnesota vs Mexican food in Hungary is probably a toss-up as far as horribleness and open contempt for the original cuisine. But in parts of the US where putting spice in food is not regarded as a gateway to mortal sins like drinking booze and dancing, we do pretty well compared to the rest of the world.

  8. April Says:

    In England 30 years ago some friends and I went to a pizza place. The "American" pizza had corn on it. I gently tried to explain to the owner that, while the pizza was good (it wasn't bad), Americans never put corn on pizza. In spite of his having never actually BEEN to the US, I could not convince him of this.

    I now live in China. While there is "good" (by my American tastes) Chinese food, most of it that contains some form of meat is terrible, since the "meat" is mostly bones, gristle and fat. In every city I've lived in here I've been able to find at least one good American/Italian/Thai/Indian/Japanese place. But never Mexican.

    I mostly cook for myself.

  9. Misterben Says:

    I'm extremely jealous of this trip you're planning. Have a great time, and share some pics.

  10. vegymper Says:

    Maybe May is a bit on the warm side in Brazilia, but if you want traditional then you can have "feijoada" (a dark, heavenly beans-n-pork stew). And enjoy rice and "farofa" (roasted cassava flour) in your plate, as you will get no bread with the food. When in Iguazú, compare both views (Brazilian side and Argentine side): Brazilians have the scene, we Argies have the action. And the wine, yes. Have a great time!

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