Monday, August 26, 2013

How *they* view *us*

I can't recall ever being the only American.

When I studied abroad in India and Argentina, I went with an American entourage. And when I went to Israel at age 16, it was alongside 35 other confused American Jewish teenagers. And going way back to 15, when I spent an unforgettable summer aprendiendo Español in Costa Rica, my closest friends from the trip had names like Kayla and Lauren. This August, however, at the "Internationale Frankfurter Sommerkurse" (a very fancy way of saying "intensive German lessons during the summer in Frankfurt"), I found myself being the only American out of a group of nearly 130.

I had my first funny experience as "the American" when I was talking to a white student from Algeria in his late 20s/early 30s. He has been attending the month-long summer course for the past few years, not so much because he wants to deutschlernen, but because he loves traveling to Germany, and without enrollment in an "official" activity, he has trouble getting a tourist visa. I was extremely shocked when he told me this, since as an American, I can come to Germany and stay for at least 3 months with the only difficulty being deciding whether I want the aisle or the window seat. Upon registering my naïve surprise at his ulterior motives for his participation in our Text Production class (a fancy name for a writing class), his face transformed into a Cheshire cat's. "You can go anywhere you want because you are an a-mer-i-can!" he yelled. "CAN! CAN!"

A few days later, I was talking with a Russian-speaking classmate whose name and face I forget. Since I've been in this country for longer than most of the other participants, she asked me what I think about Germany. I started out with my normal, cautious response: "Ja, es geht. Es ist ein bisschen anders als die USA, aber..." ("Yeah, it's alright. It is a little different than the U.S., but..."), then she blurts out, "Yes, I understand of course. You come from THE U.S! Germany's good, but you have America!"

Lastly (just for the purposes of this blog entry - I certainly have heard many other opinions and ideas about the U.S.), when I was waiting in the classroom for my teacher to begin the lesson, I starting speaking with a couple of students nearby whom I hadn't previously spoken with. One of them was surprised to learn that I, with - can you believe it?- brown hair and brown eyes, am American. "But are you American American?" she asked.

Despite the many criticisms other countries heave at the U.S. because of its interventionist policies, its social inequality, its "lack of culture," its greediness, etc. etc., I find that the people I meet in Germany, both young and old, continue to react positively when I say I am from the U.S. And despite, or perhaps owing to, the growing connectivity between the U.S. and the rest of the world, people continue to look towards the U.S. with starry-eyed wonder.

What pictures appear in their minds when they think about the U.S.? Do they think they would have happier, better lives if they came from the U.S.? What do they think the U.S. could give them that they don't get from their own countries? What I am grateful for as an American? What am I ignorant about because of my American identity?

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