What it Means to be an American

Asians take many pictures, the French are stuck up, the British are notorious for complaining, Italians are loud and Americans are stupid. While traveling and studying abroad, the identities of each nationality are brutally reduced to these and many other specific stereotypes. It is a natural human process to take the behaviors of a few people and generalize it to the entire nationality. A university is one such place where this process occurs as there are many nationalities of students mixed together and it becomes easier to generalize trends of each nationality.

Unfortunately, our reputation is not a good one.

Today, the identity of Americans abroad has drastically shifted from 60 years ago towards a negative perception. Language, politics and cultural differences have placed a wedge between the rest of the world and us. It is not only what gun-free, socialized Europeans see on the news — from school shootings to the Ferguson protest — but more importantly the personal interactions that individuals have with Americans that confirm negative perceptions.

For example, while most of the world speaks two or more languages in addition to English or French, Americans speak just one language, and loudly. To not have the necessity of learning another language implies laziness. Although it is important to preserve a language for cultural reasons, of which the French have many, Americans should not be able to use their geographic isolation as an excuse any longer. European graduate students are required to master two additional languages; most speak nearly fluent English by that point and have partially learned their third language. Ultimately, Americans miss special cultural details when they cling to English as language and culture are inseparable. This is a serious concern that is not being addressed in higher education.

Within the American education system, little pressure is placed on students to master one to two other languages, despite the benefits. Two semesters of French is simply not enough and our universities are failing us if they do not push students to meet the demands of the rest of the world. Business, natural and physical sciences, the humanities and the arts all have languages that enhance a student’s ability to produce and engage in that field. Chemistry students should be required to speak German in order to work in research facilities and be capable of reading in their second highest language of publication. History students must be fluent in both a colonial and a local language to work in primary source material and archives. Studio art students must be able to communicate with clients and fellow artists around the globe and fluidly move from one culture to the next. Without this, Americans students will remain uncompetitive. Students represent the most promising fraction of a society and therefore must strive to meet these requirements.

Additionally, many Americans struggle with geography and politics, but have strongly formed opinions. Education is something that we pay for, yet we have a less internationally aware population. There are stark differences between the responses of European and American students. In the classroom, most French students listen intently for the correct answer where American students shout out their first reaction. Watching American students try to draw maps or correctly locate another American state is simply painful. Our politics affect every other country in the world and yet many students cannot explain the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The rest of the world watches the American presidential elections and knows the state of the stock market while Americans can barely remember if France has a president or a prime minister. This impression is what European instructors and students are left with.

Furthermore, most European students are extremely politically and culturally active being a part of at least one union or organization where American students are practically begged to participate in even their own university politics. It seems apparent that most American students do not know what comprises their culture. America is the melting pot of the world, but as we have strongly embraced capitalism, much of our local identity has been lost. Instead, our culture has been replaced with sterile company logos.

Although these impressions are only personal observations, they have been formulated over the course of a year and are grounded in the opinions of countless European and international students. It is important to note that I do not believe that the stark contrasts I have repeatedly observed are the way Americans truly are or how they want to be perceived. Americans can be some of the kindest and most open minded people. They are more willing to help others and try to have unique and eye-opening experiences while traveling. Americans perceive Europe as a cultural province, whereas Europeans are fortunate to have been born in it.

Most importantly, now is the time for Americans to begin asking themselves who we truly are and how we want the rest of the world to see us. Everybody hates a tourist, but that does not have to be true of all tourists. Especially as the world becomes continually more globalized, it is essential that these relationships are fleshed out and improved. Witnessing embarrassing behavior from the people with whom I share a nationality is tiring. What is American culture? Do we really want it to be a cheeseburger and the Kardashians? Are Americans capable of working to live instead of living to work? These are essential questions that every American must ask themselves the next time they are in a foreign country.

Stereotypes are unfortunate and someday, maybe, we will move past them. I hope that as relations between each nationality improve we can, in time, begin to ask, not what it means to be an American, but what it means to be human.