Like many students at Colorado College, I spent this fall abroad. I studied in Granada, Spain for three-and-a-half months; I lived with an inspiring host mom, learned a lot of Spanish, misinterpreted directions, and got on the wrong bus more than once.
Something I often heard from my American peers there — I was in a program of 100 mostly American students — was the feeling of discomfort that came from knowing that the second they started talking, everyone knew they were American. I, too, often felt as if I had “guiri”, a somewhat derogatory term for foreigner, emblazoned on my back. At the beginning of the semester, I’d write down the words for things I was looking for at the grocery store so I could show them to employees if I tripped up while speaking. My accent was inescapable.
What I started to notice, though, was that the desire to shed our Americanism and become someone else manifested itself in other, more problematic ways. The relatively harmless frustration with fielding questions about President Donald Trump translated into an avoidance of the topic altogether. Students who typically engaged in activism in the U.S. were sometimes uncritical of inequality in our new environment. We visited Morocco, and I heard countless comments that made a monolith of Africa in its entirety, were unquestioning of often-misguided U.S. philanthropy in the region, and did not recognize the cultural bias that Americans often have in “third world” countries.
Above all, I heard students express that they didn’t want to be associated with a country they were ashamed of. We didn’t want to deal with our own cultural power.
I used to think it was ethnocentric to fixate on the power of the U.S. as a cultural exporter, and economic and political linchpin. Now I think acknowledging the centrality of U.S. influence in virtually all aspects of international relations is imperative to responsible citizenship and voting. What happens here doesn’t stay here, and those of us who identify as American or benefit from American citizenship need to take ownership of our country for better or for worse.
Did I get tired of being asked about my political views by people I barely knew? Sure. Does it suck to be laughed at when you ask for something in an American accent and the other person doesn’t understand you? Absolutely. Living and communicating in a different culture and language is never easy, and the desire to “just fit in” is perfectly normal.
But when the rest of the world is looking at the U.S. and saying, “What the hell happened?” disowning our Americanism while traveling abroad is a cop out. It’s fine to dress European. It’s great to engage with aspects of new cultures that don’t exist in the U.S. It’s important to respect cultural norms and behave accordingly. But it’s not okay to disengage from our own political context, put aside our own activism, or disregard the standards we uphold at CC just because we can. Trump is our president, and while his actions may not reflect your or my personal views or morals, they do have power within the country and outside of it. The least we can do is engage: make conversation, answer hard questions. Let someone practice English with you — be a resource. Interpret your Americanism, don’t hide it.
And please, please don’t claim to be from Canada.