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The unbearable lightness of being American abroad

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

January 28, 2011

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

“You’re going to learn a lot about what it means to be an American,” a veteran of the study abroad experience told me before I left last semester to study in Germany. At the time I acknowledged her statement but also shrugged it off—sure, I’d be an American, but hadn’t I always been one? It wasn’t exactly new.

Once I arrived in Germany, however, I quickly realized what she had meant. During my first weeks abroad, I became hyperaware of my American identity. Every time I ordered something at a restaurant or went grocery shopping, I wondered how quickly people would realize that I wasn’t German. One word? Two? At times it seemed that it was enough for them to simply take a gander at me—on at least two occasions, people approached me on the street and instantly began speaking in English to me without my having ever opened my mouth. I promptly responded in broken German, but I think they knew what was up.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t proud of being American. I simply wanted to belong. In many ways, my first weeks abroad were kind of like my first semester of college, with one pivotal difference: most of the people around me spoke a different language.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one with this problem. Everyone in my program—and likely the vast majority of students who study abroad—appeared to feel something similar, and everyone coped with this feeling of being adrift differently. Some skyped home every day. Others complained constantly about the culture around them. One kid dined almost exclusively at McDonald’s and Starbucks because it was both cheap and, yes, familiar.

I took solace in bookstores. Because I spent the semester in a university town, virtually every bookstore had a decent-sized English literature department. Though I didn’t usually have much time to read, I made a point of visiting at least one bookstore per week. The English sections fascinated me because it gave me insight into what books had transitioned well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, copious copies of books by Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown littered the shelves, but they were joined by authors ranging from Mark Twain to Philip Roth. It was simply the strangest thing—an oasis of English in a lovely if unfamiliar culture.

It also proved bizarre coming across so many familiar books in their translated form. I traveled extensively throughout western Europe, and virtually every street was covered with ads for Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”—though, instead of “Freedom,” it was “Freiheit” or some other iteration. One of my favorite translations was actually in the realm of movies—“Easy A,” the comedy with Emma Stone, became “Einfach zu haben,” which translates to “easy to have.”

Not that I didn’t engage with German culture or people. In fact, one of my favorite things was to compare notes with Germans my own age.

During my orientation, the program director “warned” us that German students actively followed the news and would likely interrogate us about American politics. While these discussions were certainly direct, they were never anything less than interesting, as they shed light on the facets of American political life that fascinated Germans. For instance, more than one person expressed their disbelief that Obama had been compared to Hitler during the health care debate (understandably a touchy issue). The conflict in Afghanistan—which actually indirectly led to the resignation of the German president last year—also came up frequently.

Most people with whom I spoke hardly focused on anything political, though. Instead, they wanted to know about tiny details of American life. What was prom like? Does everyone own a gun? Is high school just like “Mean Girls”? And why are most Americans still under the impression that Germans love David Hasselhoff?

These questions—both political and apolitical—made me think about aspects of our culture that I often don’t take into consideration. So, not only did I get insight into a culture that differs from my own, but I also learned something about my own. Not too shabby for one semester.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect about that is the fact that this questioning of American culture hasn’t stopped just because I’ve returned home. When I find myself inevitably fielding questions about my time abroad, I think of all the things that were different about Germany. For one thing, there weren’t any “one-stop-shops” like Wal-Mart or Target and relatively few chain stores and restaurants. Virtually every street has at least one bakery. Everything shuts down on Sundays save for restaurants and museums. The list goes on and on.

Of course, when you list the unique qualities of another place, you naturally begin to consider the characteristics of where you yourself live—both the good (Sunday shopping!) and the bad (good chocolate croissants are few and far between). Either way, though, I love that thrill of inquiry.

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