“What is your opinion of Barack Obama? Did you vote for him?”
a French student asked me.
“Why is the US so involved in other countries’ business?”
a stranger asked me on public transportation in Finland after hearing me speak English.
“Kellie, why do you know what the European Union is and these other American students don’t?”
a professor asked me in the Czech Republic.
“Kellie, this American girl doesn’t know that Portugal is a country. Why?!”
a Portuguese classmate of mine in the Czech Republic exclaimed.
These are just a few of the questions that I remember being asked as an American studying abroad, and they only skim the surface of the kinds of questions and conversations folks like to have with Americans. The United States is a popular topic of conversation everywhere in the world, and our television shows, movies, and politics are broadcast everywhere. Naturally, people abroad have developed opinions of the United States and of Americans. Some of those people are bold enough and curious enough to ask unsuspecting Americans to answer for those opinions.
My first experience abroad was as an exchange student in high school. Before I left for Finland, I was warned that I might encounter people who had negative views toward the United States. I was told to be careful not to stand out too much and to be cautious when in a large group of other Americans. Happily, I only encountered people who were genuinely curious and intrigued by the United States, but they did ask me questions that were difficult for one high school girl to answer. I was only 16 years old, had only lived in Michigan, and did not want to say something that could somehow damage that person’s opinion of all Americans. I slowly learned how to turn these conversations around a bit in order not to feel as though I had the fate of my entire country sitting on my shoulders. They worked for me, so I offer them hoping they might help someone else:
ask them if they have an opinion on the question they’re asking you. If they do, ask if they know what influenced that opinion. That could help give you a starting point to try and answer their question the best you can.
explain that you are from Michigan, or another state, and that you have only experienced life in that one part of a country which is home to 318.9 million people. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can share your opinions – but help the person understand that yours is not the only viewpoint coming from the United States.
if you don’t want to answer them or if you feel uncomfortable and confronted, you can politely say, “I don’t know”. You might get, “Oh come on, you’re American, you have to know” but just know that you absolutely do not have to know.
There were so many nights during my second study abroad program in the Czech Republic when my international friends would ask me question after question about American customs, history, culture, and topics in which I was no expert at all. I would try my best to answer their questions using my view point, my background, and my culture – and they genuinely valued that. I think they really appreciated being realistic and answering honestly, and loved that I had I asked them about themselves and their home countries in return. Several of the students I met while studying abroad told me that I had changed their opinion of Americans and the United States for the better, all because I was willing to have an open conversation and to ask questions in return. The pride I felt in being an ambassador for my home made the experience that much better.
Studying abroad is incredibly important for so many reasons, and the opportunity to teach others about yourself goes hand in hand with learning about them. Take this opportunity to learn about yourself and your home country as people ask you question after question.
Answer when you can, be honest when you can’t, and always ask them about themselves in return. You’ll all learn something, and perhaps you’ll each change your mind about the other. Each time that happens, the world benefits from more understanding – so be proud that you are doing your part.