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The “Classic American college student” study abroad

<ied abroad in Berlin, Germany on a non-Carleton study abroad program in the fall of 2015 during my junior year. I was interested in studying abroad in Berlin to find out what was so interesting about “Europe” because it was always hyped as the typical location American students went to. As an American citizen who grew up in South Africa and Taiwan I wanted to have what I perceived to be a “classic American college experience.” I intended to study abroad to simultaneously be in an environment with Americans from other universities and also learn about the eccentric, hip city of Berlin. Though I expected the experience to be an immersive one where I would learn about Berlin and Germany, I actually ended up learning more about my American peers and American culture. The experience was challenging and I often felt alienated from my study abroad program because I had a hard time relating to my peers and attributed it to the fact that I wasn’t “American” enough to fit in. My self-perception changed because through my marginalized experience, I questioned what it meant to be “American” and whether I was allowed to identify as one given that I have a U.S. passport but have never lived here until I came to college.

The study abroad organization for my program is catered to born and bred American students, many of whom go to elite universities and come from privileged backgrounds. My program was made up of predominantly white and upper-middle class students, two American students of color, three international Chinese students, and  me — an American-born Taiwanese. It was a program where we were together for all our classes including trips to Istanbul and St. Petersburg. I knew I was going to be around this group of people a lot. Since the first day of orientation I already had a hard time fitting in, and my introverted-nature probably didn’t help either.

My peers were interested in going out to try different “authentic” restaurants, beer gardens, and the party scene that Berlin is known for. As much as I tried to keep up with them, there was no cultural connection. I did not understand the many pop culture references they laughed about, and I had a hard time relating to the newfound independence many of my peers were excited about. Once, a peer mentioned how she drove everywhere at home in Atlanta, Georgia, and generalized it to be a very “American” thing. She  was very proud of herself for learning to navigate public transportation by herself in Berlin. As someone who started taking public transportation alone since I was ten years old in Taipei, I had a really hard time seeing subways and buses as new and exciting. I was also surprised about her comment because so many Americans rely on public transportation in the U.S. everyday due to a lack of economic accessibility.

I am in no way criticizing my peers on the program; they were all nice people. Instead, I am pointing out my experiences as a marginalized person  immersed in the hegemonic norms of the “classic American study abroad experience.” Race and class were evident because it affected and altered how we experienced our time in Berlin. During the four months of my time there, I experienced lots of frustration and would often conflate both upper class and white with “American.” I compared myself to those  who could afford to eat out, drink every night, and travel to more expensive cities on the weekends. I started to assume I had a hard time fitting in because I wasn’t American enough.

I experienced culture shock just by being on a program with my American peers. It probably did not matter where we were studying abroad;  I would still have had a hard time believing I will ever belong or relate to any American. And yet, it was hard to believe that I could be simultaneously alienated on an American study abroad, and yet feel so comfortable and at home around my Asian-American, people of color, immigrant, and third culture friends who are also American. These thoughts had me questioning: what constitutes “American?” Why must the hegemonic culture of Americans who study abroad so often be the same white and upper -middle class ones? And why must this be the representation of who an “American” is?

Asian Americans and diasporic Taiwanese are already perceived as perpetual foreigners wherever we go, whether it be in the United States or Asia. Even on an American study abroad to another country, American minorities are not recognized as “Americans.” At the end of the day, I want to believe that those who float in the in-betweenness of identity, race, culture and diaspora, are acknowledged as Americans. In no way am I endorsing American imperialism and nationalism, but instead, am pointing out that being “American” is something many people from diverse backgrounds are justified to identify as. The hegemonic norms of what it is to be “American,” something that is especially salient when studying abroad, does not define American culture and who gets to belong to it.

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