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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Warning: American abroad

<n American in another English-speaking country (or any foreign country for that matter) is a peculiar thing, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it means. I can’t say that it’s entirely good, nor is it entirely bad. It’s just peculiar. Just as it has its perks, it also has its drawbacks. What inevitably follows upon revealing my (some would say) distinctly Midwestern accent in London is a quick, almost imperceptible shift in the tone and direction of the conversation. Suddenly, I am simply “another tourist” or an “uninformed American.” Other times, I am looked at with a sense of wonder and intrigue. I never know what to expect when conversing with Londoners

I first experienced the expectations placed on Americans abroad during my summer spent in Lesotho in southern Africa. All summer long, the group of college students I was with (all Americans) had been conscious and careful of ensuring that we did not simply give anything to the children surrounding us every day. From our first day there, we were hounded by some of the boys who knew no English word other than “ball,” accompanied by a hand motion implying that we give them our soccer ball. We realized that the stereotypes attached to Americans in Lesotho involved arriving in an impoverished community, handing out goods and necessities, and leaving before long. These children had personally witnessed such a display, and so were convinced this time around that things would be the same.

We didn’t want to be seen solely as vehicles through which these communities received material goods, but to a certain extent, we were. Despite our roles as teachers and mentors, I got the feeling that the children expected more from us. Our last day in Lesotho was spent hanging out with the older kids to whom we had grown close, and we wanted to ensure that these individuals had something with which to remember us. As such, as we said our goodbyes, we passed along some of our small trinkets (magazines, headphones) without thinking much about the stereotypes we were perpetuating. We justified our actions with the thought that we were giving these kids a memento of our friendship, rather than thinking about whether we were changing their perceptions of Americans.

Were we justified? Perhaps, but this situation forced me to think more about the stereotypes of Americans anywhere in the world, and what I can do to change them. For sure, being white in Lesotho played a major role in our treatment there, yet being American in London certainly carries with it a stigma.

Despite my best efforts to blend in, my American status shines through when I spend minutes standing in front of a London Underground map, or when I dig through my wallet examining the coins that I find before handing them to the cashier. Though I am self-conscious of this aspect of my travels, it is a necessary part of the adjustment period. Even so, cashiers and waiters roll their eyes when they find me taking my time. To them, I am just another wonderstruck and uninformed American; in reality, I am reveling in the moment of being surrounded by such a different environment.

Though I am aware of the perceptions of Americans, I don’t feel that an individual can singlehandedly change the collective impression of a nation. What we can do, however, is change the minds of those we encounter, leaving them with a lasting good opinion. Rather than a soccer ball, we can leave them with a role model or a kind word. In this way, we can begin to topple some of the stereotypes abroad attached to the term “American.”

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