What it’s like to be an American in Europe

When I meet people during my travels, one of the questions that always comes up is, “Where are you from?” When I tell them that I’m American, I get a number of different responses – some positive and some, well, not so positive. Here are a few situations I have found myself in:

“What are you doing here in Poland?”

It seems that no matter where I go, even if it’s just the grocery store, someone will eventually asked me where I’m from. In Poland, I recently started responding to this question with, “Jestem Amerykanka.” (Polish for “I’m American.”) This is my simple way of trying to communicate the point that I’m from America, but I’m trying my best to be mindful and respectful of your culture and language. I’m not simply a tourist, but an American who is making your country my temporary home. At first, I didn’t want to be open about my nationality, but living in Poland for several months has taught me that the people here in Poland respect and admire Americans. In fact, some of my Polish students have relatives in America. There’s even a Polish community in Chicago. When I told one of my student’s mother over a month ago that I was spending the holidays in Europe, she responded that it was a dream of hers to spend the holidays in America – mostly because she had a sister in Wisconsin. The more I realize that it is a Polish dream to move to America someday, the more comfortable I am about being American in Poland. Now that I’m more comfortable about my nationality, I don’t mind telling people that the reason why I’m in Poland is because I’m an English language teacher who wants to experience a new culture.

“Did you vote for President Obama?”

You’d be surprised how many times people have asked me that. Most of the time, the person who asks the question clearly does not like Obama so when I honestly answer, “Yes, I did,” they inadvertently start blaming me for Obama’s actions. Every time this comes up, I get super uncomfortable. I try to explain that I am politically independent (neither Democrat and Republican). Every time I vote, I try to figure out who is the lesser of two evils, which is a very pessimistic approach, I know. I like to have an open mind about both sides. When I explain that to the person who sparked a political conversation, I sometimes regain some respect. Or they see they see that I’m someone who isn’t up-to-date with politics, which also isn’t a complete lie.

“You should say you’re from Canada instead. Minnesota is close to Canada.”

I received this response once. It was while I was visiting Venice, Italy. I met a young man from Belgium who openly disliked America and was not afraid to tell me, but he but he was curious enough to ask what state I was from. When I told him Minnesota and explained that it bordered Canada, he immediately told me that I should start telling people that I’m from Canada. He claimed that Europeans would like me more if I was Canadian. It didn’t help that I was already self-conscious about being American. The very next day, a couple from England asked me if I was Canadian. I couldn’t help but respond with, “What makes you think I’m Canadian?” They told me that my accent sounds like it could be Canadian. (Maybe it’s because Minnesota is close enough!) Ignoring the Belgium man’s advice, I told them that I’m American. It turned out they were more interested placing locations with accents instead of favoring Canada over America.

“You’re American. You definitely have the accent.” 

Most of the time, people can tell that I’m American before I even tell them. It’s because of my accent. When I was a young child, I was fascinated by other people’s accent. I’m still fascinated by it. I love hearing the difference in pronunciations. As a child, I wished that I had an accent too. Somehow, I grew up thinking that I didn’t have an accent. I thought that it was too normal and bland. Now that I’m in Europe, I find that I’m now the person with the unique accent – unique enough where I can’t hide the fact that I’m American. In Bielsko-Biala, Poland, there was an expat meeting held for people who live in Bielsko who are not from Poland. I enjoy those meetings because I get to talk to people from France, Egypt, the U.K., and America. During one of the meetings, a fellow American after observing me for a couple of minutes told me, “Judging by your accent, you’re from the American Mid-West.” At first I was blown away, but then I realized that so was he. Then he decided to guess my state and decided upon Indiana. He was wrong, but I did tell him that my dad’s side of the family was from Indiana. (And added that the Colts are my favorite football team.) This made me start asking myself if I really do have a hybrid Minnesotan and Indianan accent since they are the home states of my parents. I still don’t know.

“You can have guns in America.”

Towards the beginning of the school year, one of my fifth grade boys asked me where I’m from. After I told him, he immediately said, “You’re from the best country.” I’m not going to lie, I smiled a little at this response – until I asked him why he thinks America is the best. “You can have guns in America!” Right now the fifth grade boys at Oxford Centre has an obsession with guns. When I ask them to write sentences using the vocab words from the list provided, a handful of boys tried to incorporate guns, even if it made no sense with the target words. Whenever I update myself about what’s happening in America, the more I’m convinced that gun obsession among school boys must be taken seriously. The teachers talked and debated among themselves about how to properly react to the obsessive talk about guns and shooting people about the 5th grade boys. As the American teacher in the school, I’ve been asked to share my point of view and where America stands. People from other countries are aware of the shootings taking place in America. I decided to personally not allow talk of guns in class even though the director of the school basically told the teachers, “They are just boys. It’s natural for them to talk about guns. They might become soldiers someday.” While there is truth in that statement, I still decided to not allow gun talk in class and other Polish teachers felt that same way.

“You’re smart for an American. You surprise me.”

This was said by a Polish young man who was at least two years younger than me and still in college. We were sitting next to each other on a bus from Zakopane to Krakow. This young man sat next to me because the bus was full and the only available seat left was next to me. When I opened my mouth and spoke English, he recognized that I’m American. He then spent an hour ranting about how he’s amazed that Americans have some of the laziest and most athletic people in the world, the skinniest and the fattest people, and the dumbest and most intelligent people. He asked me what I knew about European history. Thanks to my intensive history course called Western Heritage, I managed to prove to him that I knew quite a bit of European history. “You’re smart for an American,” he then told me. “You surprise me.” This statement took me aback. Despite the fact that he previously mentioned that Americans had some of the smartest and dumbest people, this comment about being smart for an American told me that he secretly harbored thoughts that Americans were generally dumb. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the two-hour conversation we had, I couldn’t help walking away with the words, “You’re smart for an American,” stuck in my head. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

What it’s like to meet another American in Europe

If I’m to be honest, I’ve had both positive and negative reactions towards meeting another American in Europe. On one hand, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. We are both on this journey together. We both know what it’s like to be an American in Europe. Sometimes we swap stories and reassure each other that we’re not alone when someone (consciously or unconsciously) discriminates us as Americans. Then there are times when I meet the American tourist who acts superior and has no cultural awareness. During my travels, I have heard other Americans vent about language barriers or why they don’t like this country or that. Talking to a former English teacher in Poland, she was glad when her contract in Poland was up. When I heard her complain about various things in Poland, I couldn’t help but think to myself that I want to make the best of the time I have left. I’m half way through the school year, and so far, life has been getting better for me instead of worse. I decided to see the beauty of Polish culture (as well as the other countries and cultures I encounter during my travels) and yet maintain a healthy American pride.

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3 thoughts on “What it’s like to be an American in Europe

  1. There’s plenty of stereotypes across the pond, on both sides. I guess its only when you actually skip to the other side that you’re fully exposed to them (and even then, it takes a while).

    Like

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