The U.S. has a global reputation, and U.S. citizens abroad often carry with them certain forms of power and privilege that may not be present in their everyday lives at home. As such, your identity as a U.S. American may have an impact on your experience in your host city or country.
Through cultural exports such as music, film and TV shows, news and media outlets with a global reach, and the exercising of political influence internationally, many people have some knowledge of U.S. culture and politics. As a result, when U.S Americans go abroad, they often encounter people with (sometimes strong) opinions about the U.S. It can be difficult to know how to respond to questions or comments about the U.S., especially if you are studying abroad in a second language and may not have the vocabulary you would normally use when discussing sensitive or difficult subjects. Doing some research ahead of time about current and historical relations between the U.S. and your host country can help to provide context for some of the opinions and perspectives you may encounter. Above all, try to use these conversations as opportunities to listen and learn. “Seeing your country from the outside looking in can give you a perspective that is difficult to gain in any other way…Even if you don’t agree with everything you come across, being exposed to the views of others can help you gain that multifaceted perspective that is part of becoming a global citizen.”1
1. UVM Outreach. Why You Don’t Have To Travel Far For a Meaningful Experience. April 18, 2014. https://learn.uvm.edu/blog/blog-travel/north-american-travel-study
Things to Consider Before Going Abroad
- What has the historical, political, and/or cultural relationship between the U.S. and my host country been? What are relations between the two countries like currently?
- What historical, political, and/or cultural aspects do the U.S. and my host country have in common?
- Do a lot of students from the U.S. study abroad in my host country/city? What are the possible implications if there are? What are the possible implications if there are not?
- What are common stereotypes of U.S. Americans that I should be aware of before going abroad?
- What are some U.S. American cultural idiosyncrasies that are uncommon, or perhaps inappropriate, in other countries (for example: smiling at strangers, kissing someone goodnight after a first date, etc.)?
- How can I learn about both U.S. American cultural idiosyncrasies and the idiosyncrasies of my host culture so that I can be aware of my own ingrained behaviors while also better understanding the behaviors of my local peers and acquaintances?
Things to Consider While Abroad
- Are there courses that I can take that address U.S. politics, international relations, history, and/or culture from a non-U.S. perspective?
- Are there particular aspects of U.S. politics, history, or culture that my local peers and acquaintances seem particularly interested in or concerned about? If so, what might the reason be (think about the local context, history, and culture in which you find yourself)?
- What opinions or impressions about the U.S. am I hearing from my local peers and acquaintances? If they are opinions that I don’t agree with, what is the best way for me to engage (or not) with them respectfully while also sharing my perspective?
- When I am confused or concerned about what to do, say, or how to react in a particular situation, is there someone with a local perspective that I can turn to for advice (for example: a program director, instructor, cultural mentor or language exchange partner, etc.)?
- Creedon, Mary. “Understanding Your Power: 7 Ways to Make Your Semester Overseas Less About You.” Unpacked: A Study Abroad Guide for Students Like Me. (2017)
- Murphy, Niamh. “An American Abroad.” Diversity Abroad: Articles & Resources. (2017)
- Nishimoto, Mitsuki. “Where Are You From? Understanding Microaggressions Abroad.” Unpacked: A Study Abroad Guide for Students Like Me. (2015)
- These tips from Niagara University for responding to criticisms of the U.S. you might face while abroad.
- Bonds, Laura. “Stereotyping Can (and Does!) Happen to Anyone.” Unpacked: A Study Abroad Guide for Students Like Me. (2015)
- Gerstein, Jeremy. “My ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment: I am a Foreigner.” IES Abroad: Blogs. (2020)
- Schwenk, Katya. “When the World Knows More about the U.S. Than You.” IES Abroad: Blogs. (2019)
- Slatery, Kelly. “Skipping the American Center Abroad: Why I Chose to Immerse Myself in a Latin American University.” Unpacked: A Study Abroad Guide for Students Like Me.
- Uprety, Shristi. “National Identity Abroad: Us vs. Them - The American and the English.” Unpacked: A Study Abroad Guide for Students Like Me. (2016)
- Winn, Genevieve. “An American in France.” IES Abroad: Blogs (2019)
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