I waited for my friend from Columbia to get a coffee. He asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, but I declined (I don’t like coffee). He replied that, as a Columbian, he has to like coffee because his country is known for two things: coffee and cocaine. He told me he prefers coffee (although, for the record, he was kidding and I know he’s never tried cocaine).
This moment made me think of national identity. Why is it that I can’t remember my classmate’s name, but I can remember she’s from China? At an international student event, I introduced someone as the “Italian” and he introduced me as the “American.” Here, in a foreign country, my identity is tied directly to my country of origin more than my name. Hardly anyone knows my name, but I am always introduced as the American.
As an American, I am expected to be the stereotypical American…which means pop culture. I study French culture, but I would fail a course on American pop culture. I don’t know who the coolest band is or who stars on that new TV show. But I have many students ask, do you know this American singer? Do you know this American TV show? They seem disappointed when I don’t know what they’re talking about.
You’re American and you don’t know about [insert topic of conversation]? Wow.
Whoops. I should have studied a little bit of American pop culture before going abroad. Then, there’s the concept of glamorous Hollywood or the Big Apple or…
“You’re from America. That’s cool. Where are you from? Florida?”
“No, I’m from Caribou, Maine.”
“Maine. It’s a state near Canada.”
“Oh Canada! I know Canada.”
“But I go to college in Morgantown, West Virginia.”
“Uh…West Virginia. It’s near…Virginia? Uh…Washington D.C?”
“Washington D.C! I know Washington D.C.”
Close enough. But then the tables are turned on me. I’ve met people from countries I can’t even pronounce. “Where is that?” I’ll ask with embarrassment.
It’s a big world and, to make it smaller, we create stereotypes, generalizations about people and places. It’s true that most Americans are knowledgeable on the entertainment industry, but not everyone in America is obsessed with pop culture. It’s true that Columbia legally exports a lot of coffee and, illegally, exports a lot of cocaine. But not everyone in Columbia deals cocaine or drinks coffee.
Still, there is an inherent connection between where we are from and who we are. Our beliefs and ideals can be traced back to our countries, our cultures. When people find out I’m American, I get asked many questions about politics.
What do you think of Obama?
Where do you stand on gun control?
Do you think that the United States should aide France in its efforts in Mali?
America is often viewed abroad as a superpower. We’re a country with a lot of influence abroad and just the name of “America” evokes a strong image. In the local regional paper, there’s a world section and, almost every time, there’s an article about America. It is clear that the name “United States of America” carries its own stereotypes.
What does it mean to be American?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. I could represent my country by reinforcing the stereotype of a partying, crazy college student or I can show that some American students are hard-workers, dedicated to their studies. Naturally, I chose to break the stereotype and show that all Americans aren’t the same, just as all Columbians or Chinese aren’t the same.
My national identity remains the same. I am an American and I will always be introduced as such, even when my name is forgotten. But the implications of my national identity are up to me to create. Imagine a foreign student going home and saying, “I met this girl from America. She had no idea about this TV series, but she loves to read.”