The airport user's manual
Note: this was published in September of 2023, a month before the Hamas attacks and the Israeli reprisals
When I left the US about 5 years ago Trump was breaking up families at the southern border, keeping kids in inhumane cages, and losing track of which kids belonged to which parents (hundreds of children are still orphaned). It was a fucked up time to be an American (and, apparently, an even worse time to be Guatemalan). At the time I wrote about my impression of the Earth as a round object with me in one spot, my friends in another, and those poor kids in yet another. It is the view of the Earth that the astronauts had, looking back from the Moon. It is a view where we are all the same, one species standing in different spots on one world. That view makes our different lots in life seem so capricious. What if those kids were born just a little bit north? Now, after 5 years spent in other cultures, the sphere part of things seems pretty irrelevant to me. We can be in different worlds while in the same room. It is the culture that we are born into that is so capricious.
American culture is myopic and inward looking. This is not surprising: you can travel without borders in a straight line for about 6000 kilometers in the lower 48. Along the way you can assume that the people you meet have English language skills. If you want to insult the people you meet you will know how, and if you feel insulted by them it is probably because they meant to insult you. You can take a liking to a place along the way, drop everything, take a job and get an apartment and the only people that need to know about it are your employer and your landlord. This is not normal. Generally speaking, whenever you move a few hundred kilometers on Earth you are going to need specific language skills, a great deal of cultural sensitivity, and lots and lots of government paperwork. In the great wide sameness of America we are free from these burdens. I think this is a big part of our economic success, and also why we are uniquely bad at reasoning about the larger world around us.
With our economic might we can get on planes and fly to most anywhere. The American passport works pretty well. There are a few exceptions, Russia and so on, that require a bit more work. But as an American you can use your credit card to put your feet just about anywhere, tomorrow. And when you get there you will be in way over your head. This is also true of those privileged enough to visit the US. The most important thing about a place is always unspoken, and how could anyone know that which is unspoken before arriving?
So I propose an airport user's manual. This would be a UN regulated document made available in every airport or other concentrated port of arrival. It would contain information contrasting the local culture with some imagined cultural midpoint. This cultural midpoint might not exist in any real place, but it would be a useful abstraction. The manual would tell you what is surprising about the place you are about to visit, which things are punished, which things are taboo, which things are rewarded, etc.
In Greece do not refer to the nation of Macedonia or North Macedonia. Instead say Skopje
In the US you will often be told of the freedoms that are available, but beware, nearly every activity is prohibited at some time or in some place and the fines for normal daily activities can be ruinous. Examples include stopping your car on the side of the road so that you can get out of it, consuming alcohol in the wrong place or at the wrong time, and engaging in necessary bodily functions such as sleeping or urination.
Some activities that are permitted in one place can lead to decades of incarceration in another, such as possessing marijuana or fully automatic weapons. There are no barriers between the places where these things are and are not allowed, and maps are not labeled with this information.
It is encouraged to complain about Mondays
The people of Germany are well known for a former regime (the Nazis) which identified with an even older regime whose emperor was considered to be god's representative on Earth (the Reich or the Holy Roman Empire). The Nazis enforced a series of strict rules to ensure "Germanness", going as far as to slaughter a large portion of the population that was not considered German enough. Most of the murdered Germans were not Christian (the victims were mainly Atheists and Jews).
In Germany people believe they are not religious, but you are never far from a church tower and many of the bells that ring out to announce the current time still carry the Nazi Cross, a symbol of that murderous regime. The government collects taxes on behalf of the Christian church, and it is very hard to buy food on Sundays because this is a day that Christians choose to not participate in the economy. Though Germans clearly are religious it is best not to point this contradiction out to them because they feel very badly about that previous regime and have done a lot of hard work to atone for their murderous past. This atonement does not include revisiting the strict rules to ensure "Germanness"; this is an effort they are still very enthusiastic about.
In Jordan secret agents representing the King hide within the general population. Though these agents will not harm you, they will harm locals who are critical of the government. Do not engage locals in discussions about the local government, it might put them in danger.
Israel is fucked, the very basis of the nation is theft and nearly every human thought is offensive to someone in Israel. You are urged to leave immediately. As you do, realize your luck because many people in Israel are not allowed to leave, and many who used to live in Israel are not allowed to return.
Constructing such a document would confront the question of moral and cultural relativism. What is that reference culture that the document assumes? If such a culture can't be imagined, must one instead create a pamphlet for every possible nation pairing? Who will write the Mongolia-Botswana pamphlet? What about the Israel-Jordan pamphlet? But I have a suggestion for a simple test to get close enough without tackling these thorny issues: The airport user's manual is correct when it enrages every resident of the nation it describes.
After 5 years out of my own country I have learned great respect for the restrictive and thought-destroying power of culture. Our culture determines what we want and what we cannot understand at a level so basic that it may be inescapable.

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