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Being the American abroad

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Senior Staff

SEPTEMBER 27, 2019

When I first got to campus in summer 2018, my backpack was covered in political pins. Just three months later, when I boarded my flight to London to study abroad, my backpack was bare. Not a single pin. All because I didn’t want to seem American.

You see, my pins would have given me away. From the one with Bernie Sanders’ face on it to the one that says “Vote November 3” with an American flag, they all scream “I’m an American.” And I just didn’t want that in the land of nationalized healthcare and one of the best public transportation systems in the world. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I do like this country. We have a lot to be proud of, including freedom of the press, our passionate people and our entrepreneurial spirit. With the current occupant in the White House and the stereotypes other countries seem to have about our citizens, however, I’ve found myself hesitant to openly proclaim my Americanness. 

When people find out that you are an American, it’s all they want to talk about. In the pub, in a lift, on the Tube … it doesn’t matter.

It’s always: “Did you vote for Donald Trump?” “How did that happen?” “Do you know any Trump supporters?”

I’ve been asked all of these questions. And while I am an inherently political person, it can get exhausting after a while to constantly explain the government of my country, especially when it is a government that I don’t necessarily support. It would be much easier to pretend to be Canadian, although maybe not right now with Trudeau’s alleged blackface, so I always just attempted to avoid the subject. 

Everywhere I went in Europe, it was really important to me to hide my national origins at all costs, which included intentionally downplaying all stereotypes — some correct and some incorrect — about Americans. 

We are thought of as loud, so I always tried to be the quietest person in the room. We are known for stopping in the middle of doorways and blocking sidewalks, so I always made sure to be out of the way as much as possible. We are thought of as dumb, so I tried to sound as educated and intelligent as possible.

Obviously, avoiding my Americanness wasn’t always realistic. I didn’t speak the native language everywhere I traveled, so at times, I was forced to rely on my American English to get by. I didn’t have a cool accent like the Londoners or the Scots (nor did I try to have one). I still tried to seem like I knew what I was doing, however. I knew where I was, and that I was an American.

Looking back, this was probably not completely necessary. As mean and judgmental as I thought Europeans might be about my nationality — with their superior environmental protections and rich history — in reality, they were really nice. 

Even when they did find out that I was American, most people were more curious than disgusted. My anxiety and shame were misplaced.

Some of their perceptions of Americans were even kind of funny. 

I was sitting in on a park bench one evening reading when two college-aged British boys sat next to me. When we got to talking, they asked me where I was from. I begrudgingly admitted that I was from the United States. They asked what state, and I, more proudly, responded, “California.” Their response was priceless.

“Oh, so do you smoke weed?” they asked. 

Another association that always makes me chuckle is the perception of Americans’ fashion choices. 

Apparently, according to one of my British friends, we are known for always wearing exercise clothing, even when we aren’t exercising. While the British may have the moral high ground on a lot of issues, they don’t have it on this. I will forever be proud of being from a country with comfortable clothes, as anyone who has seen me in my yoga pants can attest. 

What I learned through all of this is that there are worse things to be than an American. At least we have comfortable clothes, freedom of speech and that entrepreneurial spirit to be proud of. 

There is also international camaraderie to be had when criticizing the White House together. Being American doesn’t make me a Trump supporter or loud and inconsiderate. It just makes me proud to live in a multifaceted country with so many assets and so much potential. 

I’m planning to go abroad again, and I think I’ll do it differently this time. The pins will likely stay on my backpack, and I’ll be less ashamed of this country that I call home. Because, after all, I am American.

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 27, 2019