Diaries of an Expat: What Does it Mean to Be American?

Diaries of an Expat: What Does it Mean to Be American?

By Katie Ford

As I sit in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, I find myself surrounded by “American” cultural icons- a cowboy-themed bar, country music, multiple fast-food options, and a steakhouse.  But the thing is, I don’t really identify with any of these things in the way that many of the people around me seem to.  I actually feel like I often do when I’m traveling in other countries; I recognize the similarities between myself and those around me, but the difference are also glaringly obvious.

I’ve been traveling in the United States for various conferences and meetings over the past week and a half, and it has given me an interesting insight into my own culture, and that of different regions around the USA.  Probably the most valuable part of the time that I’ve spent back in the States is that I was visiting places I had never traveled to before, despite those places being located within the confines of my own country.  Furthermore, in New Orleans, the culture is significantly different than the culture in New York, my home state.  I felt as if I was visiting another country while I was there, and it was shocking to notice how little I fit in as a “typical American”.  So much of what I noticed people saying or doing seemed so foreign to me as I wandered through the streets of the Big Easy.  Is it possible that I’ve already lost fundamental components of my “American” culture?  Is it possible to actually lose culture?  At what point do you become a foreigner in your own country?

These are the questions I began asking myself.  It’s particularly interesting because when you live as an expat, you’re often defined by the place that you came from.  For instance, whenever I meet someone new in Prague, I’m always first asked where I’m from, as I am obviously not Czech.  As soon as I say, “the States”, “New York”, or any variation thereof, there is always an immediate judgement that you can practically see and feel.  I’ve never particularly minded that people tend to initially judge me based on my home town, state, or country, as those are certainly things that have played a large role in who I have developed into as an adult.  I also usually find that after I spend more time with those people, their judgements tend to shift as they realize that I don’t fit into most of the typical American stereotypes (thankfully).  Despite this, I have always been proud of being an American, of my home state and all that it offers, and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded because of those things.  On the other side of the coin, when I’m in the United States, and where I live somehow comes up in conversation, I am instantly judged as a foreigner.  An American who isn’t quite an American that lives a crazy and exotic life that seems essentially incomprehensible to many.  It’s hard for some people, especially those who haven’t traveled, to relate to me anymore, and it’s an interesting byproduct of becoming an expat.  You can’t relate to those who are native in your host country, as you’re obviously still foreign, but those at home also find you hard to relate to because you’ve made yourself somehow foreign.

The question of whether or not it’s possible to “lose” culture came up at one of the conference sessions I attended this week, and I thought it was a very interesting question.  There wasn’t really a general consensus in the room, although some of those in attendance had some very thought-provoking responses to the question.  I personally like the response from one woman working at a university in Barcelona.  At her university, they teach classes in Catalan, Spanish, and English in order to give all students, local and international, the opportunity to develop a wide array of language skills in order to better prepare them for the world.  The concept of culture is particularly poignant in Barcelona because of the ever-lasting Spanish versus Catalan culture contention.  She said that she doesn’t think her students lose anything in terms of culture when they take courses in a language outside of their own.  In fact, she said that she thinks that no matter where your cultural roots are, you will always have the ability to gather other cultural insights to incorporate them into your own, but that growth doesn’t negate your own culture, which will never change.  I feel like this fairly accurately describes how I have developed personally over the last 5 or so years since I first studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence.  Living abroad in three different countries has taught me how to learn from and truly appreciate other cultures while still maintaining my own identity.  The key thing, for me, is to recognize how my identity may be perceived by other people depending on what their previous exposure has been, and accepting that as something I can do nothing about.  The most important responsibility I have is to continue growing, developing, and learning about everything around me in an effort to become the most compassionate, well-rounded, and forward-thinking individual I can be.  Yes, I am an American.  I am also a global citizen, and part of this experience means reconciling the two.

 

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