On American identity abroad
In the University of Bristol Epigram I read
a feature on studying abroad in America--
a piece not too unlike the one I
needed to write. The article begins with a fictional
account of an American college party,
"a boozy 20th birthday celebration," gone
wrong: campus security bursts into the room
and commandeers all drinks before "breathalizing
every single party guest." Soon those
blowing guilty have "200 pound" fines and
suspended driving licenses.
The reporter goes on to cite
this scenario as a common
one at American colleges.
"In America, where the
drinking age is 21," the
piece further relates, "many
youths spend more time in
their local ice cream parlour
than the bar." Well...
I really can't speak for many American schools besides Colby, and I think it's unwise to try to generalize the way of life at "Uni" in the UK. But what I might be able to write about is being an American at a British university, at least one like Bristol.
Normally, our identities comprise a collection of roles and the ways we act them out. At Colby and at home, for example, I'm a son and brother, a student, a friend, a member of the Jazz Band and also an American, among other things. But traveling abroad has filtered out most of these roles and left behind that last one, American. From passport control to arrival at my hall, I am now an American above all else. "Americans!" our British friends still laugh and shout when they see us study abroad students. They know an abridged list of cities and states (sometimes confusing the two, like naming Miami a state), every line from American Dad and Family Guy and an unexpected amount about President Obama and Hilary Clinton. They also like to talk about American pancakes, which they tell us we eat in stacks ten high, overrun with butter and coveted maple syrup.
None of this is to say, of course, that our British friends match the expectations we brought along with us. Here I think our orientation upon arrival failed us in particular. We learned the essentials of British culture: their respect for lines (queues), their preference of petty theft over violent assault and their love of black clothing. Really, none of these hints has helped us adjust to life in Bristol; we suspect these guidelines may hold up among adults, but the "youths" at the University of Bristol have done little more than slide by us in the liquid queues. And, of course, they wear as many colors as we do-- often from the American Apparel catalogue.
As for theft... At orientation they warned us to lock our doors even when visiting the bathroom and to keep our laptops in view at all times. But when I go to the bathroom, I'm more worried about the "freshers" in my corridor removing my bed and dressers than my computer.
For many of us, being American in England also means being American all over Europe. Marvels like easyJet and Eurail make it possible for students to travel cheaply, notably during the month-long Easter holiday, which just ended. Our primary identities then become both tourist and American (unless you pretend to be Canadian). But being a foreigner is much more enjoyable in Bristol than it is in tourist hives like Vienna or Prague. At these places, we found little human interaction outside of waiters, tour guides and a range of beggars (from those frozen genuflecting to those who curse and spit at your feet). The election of our new President has helped cool animosity toward Americans abroad, but there lingers an unarticulated annoyance, an understandable one, I think. It's easy--and unfair-- to judge a restaurant in Munich on how well the waitress spoke English. Indeed, no matter where we went, their English was better than our German or Czech or Polish (in that order). A tense line lies between being an ignorant guest in someone's country and also a paying customer in his restaurant.
Meanwhile, even back at Bristol, language problems lurk around every familiar corner. I think people sometimes feel that studying abroad in English speaking countries makes for a somehow less challenging or authentic cultural experience; the word "immersion" is commonly kept in the context of foreign languages. Without undermining the difficulties of these other study abroad experiences, I would note the unique communication problems pitched at Americans visiting Great Britain. Unnerving, and often mischievous, is it for words whose meanings you think you know to squirm around and attach themselves elsewhere. Words like "biscuit" (UK cookie), "private school" (UK public school) and "pants" (UK underwear) among countless others will certainly lead you astray, but it's usually a fun and worthwhile journey.