A few years ago I was painting the exterior of my three-story house. Leaning sideways off my two-story ladder, trying to see how far I could stretch before needing to climb back down to move the ladder, I heard an engine idling on the street behind me. I turned to see a hotel van full of Japanese businessmen. Through their translator, I answered their questions. The most important one? How much was I being paid to work on a Sunday? When I told them it was my house, they pointed and chattered among themselves before the translator asked if they could take my picture. If I’d been thinking fast enough, I would have given them each some scrapers and brushes and put them to work. To me, they were tourists – voyeurs who look without seeing, observing but not absorbing the lives of others through a lens they’ve paid to look through.

Later that evening I walked up the street for a meal and a beer. They were already in the bar, well on their way to a good night. They were tipping the guitar player generously and phonetically singing along to Almost Heaven and Rocky Mountain High, which they knew verbatim. I was sitting at the bar talking with friends when their translator came over and said his group would be picking up my tab. They wanted to thank me for being a part of their tour in the historic part of the city where I lived. Then one of them came over and said something to the tour guide. The guide told me that my house painting was the first unscripted thing that they’d experienced in the past week and they were grateful for the surprise. After we talked a bit more, they were even more surprised, that like them, I travelled for a living. But unlike them, I took pride in doing my own manual labor [in good measure because I couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it to my standards. I wouldn’t hire the people whose poor work I could afford.]. While I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying among themselves, it appeared that [1] it was something they had no intention of ever doing for themselves and [2] they had gained a different view of Americans. I have no idea whether this view was positive or negative.

That’s when I realized I was wrong about them. In reality, they were more like me: Travelers [not in the Irish sense of the word!] They knew they didn’t belong. I knew from their hotel van and dress that they worked for a local multinational. Uniting us was the point of commonality, a respect for each other that transcended the obvious differences. They were stepping from their comfort zones, making an effort to learn a bit about my local culture – and we all had the ability to laugh at our perceptions and misperceptions of each other. Even the overworked translator, who had input coming at him from nearly a dozen people in two languages, was laughing along. We all lost track of the number of photos we appeared in with each other. [After all, they were Japanese.]

I’ve encountered – and been part of – groups like this around the world. Even with a language barrier we realize that the locals are not part of a museum exhibit to be talked about and pointed at. No guides, no guidebooks. Just lots of gesturing, laughing and pidgin talk on both sides of the conversation. Once we get beyond national and racial stereotypes and turn from tourist to traveler we find that most people are pretty nice. Everywhere.

By the way, I didn’t fall off my ladder and break my ribs until a few years later – and fortunately that was from a one-story house.