Growing up in the United States, I thought I knew what it meant to be an “American.” However, as I was living abroad in New Zealand and Scotland, I met many other people whose perceptions challenged my own viewpoint. This affected me because as a born-and-raised Southerner, there are a lot of ideas about what I should be like. – e.g. I’m supposed to be stupid, sip on mint julip and/or racist. However, my travels shed light on my own set of assumptions of other cultures and peoples.
I had been in New Zealand for a week, when I had my first unpleasant interaction regarding perceptions of the U.S. I was in a store and casually speaking with a Kiwi (a word New Zealand locals use to refer to themselves) who asked me why the U.S. education system was so unorganized. He went on to ask how “we” could have elected George W. Bush. I thought to myself “good question!” and let him know that I hadn’t; he seemed disinterested in my reply. As I reached the counter, a lady next to me leaned over and said with a smile, “We’re not all like that, you know.”
It was clear that she did not want a foreign student in her homeland perceiving that all Kiwis are prejudiced against Americans. Clearly, she did not dislike Americans. But as kind as her words were, the damage was done. I did not want to take the chance that I would meet someone else with similar negative perceptions. I began trying to affect a Kiwi accent. I would do my best to not speak at all and even lied- saying that I was from Canada. One time, a friend of mine “outed” me and told one of the locals I am from the South which prompted the question “Do you still shoot black people down there?”
Now, being raised in Birmingham, Alabama, I am aware of how some people view Southerners. I went to a top public school, but my friends would come back from visiting other parts of the U.S. having been asked, “Do you ride horses to school?” An American friend in Edinburgh joked about Alabamians having “intimate relations” with horses, not realizing I was from the state. (What is it about Southerners and horses?) He was a bit mortified when he found out where I was from, but honestly, how many of us have made similar assumptions based on uninformed stereotypes? I know I made assumptions about other regions of the U.S. believing, even after visiting, that all Northerners were “rude,” while all people from the West Coast were “fake.” When I attended college, I made friends from places like California, New York, New Jersey and more, so that all of those assumptions went out the window.
I faced this same challenge while living abroad. I had assumed that all Kiwis must walk around barefoot most of the time, and that New Zealand was just a small island that belonged to Australia. My ignorance was not just reserved for the Kiwis, however. I lived in an international dorm with people from at least twenty different countries. My stereotypes and assumptions were being challenged on a daily basis. However, I also encountered opportunities to teach others about who I am (and who I am not) not just as an American, but as a Southerner.
I had been raised to believe that the United States was the “best” country in the world and that its way of life was unique. Yet what I was discovering was that many other countries had better living standards in many ways. I was surprised at how “fashionable” my Chinese friends were or how my Arab friends were big fans of “The Simpsons”. I was floored at how ignorant I felt even though I had considered myself an open-minded person in the States.
Everyone I met, whether in Scotland or New Zealand, and no matter which part of the world they hailed from had an opinion about the US, whereas I couldn’t comment on the political situation in most countries. I will never forget the 2008 election. When I was in Scotland, I was interviewed for a documentary where the interviewer couldn’t believe that a man from Alabama would vote for Obama. Not only was he familiar enough with the U.S. to know Alabama, he knew it well enough to know that the majority of the state was not going to vote for a Democrat.
I realized how separate and truly cut off from the rest of the world I felt as an American abroad. However, it actually got worse when I returned home. Soon after, I was at a Christmas gathering, and mentioned that I wanted to go to Istanbul. One family member told me that “it doesn’t get any better than the US, so why would you go?” Another commented about how “Muslims are terrorists. They hate us, just look at 9/11. I’d be too scared to go.” I was flabbergasted. These kinds of unfounded assumptions became very hard for me to deal with. I wished they could have met some of the friends I had made abroad. See, it’s easy for a person to be a “type” until you get to know them; then they become a real, flesh-and-blood human being.
By this point, I had begun to realize that EVERYONE has their own perspective. Living abroad helped me reconsider all of my assumptions because I now had to justify them to those who were not from the U.S. This trickled down to every person I met, either foreign or from home, as I tried to divorce myself from preconceived notions I held about ANYONE.
I realize that I now live my life with an openness and curiosity that I never had before. I want to get to know everyone I meet beyond merely where they come from or what language they speak. Learning to deal with assumptions was the greatest learning experience that going abroad taught me. I now think back fondly to what that wonderful Kiwi woman said to me at the very beginning of my time abroad: “We’re not all like that, you know.”