Thursday, March 12, 2009

They’re Americans, Not Canadians

Memo to American students abroad from Amy Elizabeth Smith: Tell the truth when your hosts ask where you’re from. You’re Americans, not Canadians.

Smith, an associate professor of English at the University of the Pacific writing in the new Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), says she’s noticed too many American students denying their nationality when asked abroad.

Smith spent a semester teaching in Chile and found a good many students who admitted that they’d passed themselves off as Canadians when encountered by locals. The American students are afraid that they’ll be identified as part of the Ugly American that’s such a part of world popular culture.
It’s precisely because of the Ugly American stigma that culturally sensitive students from the United States need to stand up and be counted. Americans aren't all ignorant, aggressive, and badly dressed, but the stereotypes will stand unchallenged if Canada gets the credit for our better-behaved students.
What study abroad is supposed to do — give students a greater sense of independence, not just of action but also of thought — is to give students the ability to critically evaluate the criticisms of their culture and politics and to understand the cultural differences in the purposes of conversation in different lands. But too many students simply choose to hide their selves from the locals. A vital learning experience is lost.

Smith adds:
We don’t need our students to parade the streets of Beijing or Oslo waving American flags. When telling the truth would be genuinely dangerous, then by all means, Vancouver is as good as any port in a storm. But in general, the best policy anywhere is to blend in, respectfully. That is the heart of the matter. Lying about one’s nationality is disrespectful.

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