I have run into instances where I tell people that I’m American and for a second they give me a strange look, it takes a minute to decipher this look but I personally have run into very few instances where it is negative. I believe the perceptions of American students abroad vary from place to place though. In Germany nobody batted an eye if you said you were American but in Belgium people find it interesting and want to know more. In Belgium, and Brussels in particular, there is such a wide variety of nationalities that learning another persons background is always interesting and there are very few instances in which a person is shamed for it.
But both of the locations that I have chosen to study in are off the beaten track and I think this action alone defers many of the typical American abroad stereotypes. It becomes implied that the reason we are in the country we are in is because we want to learn about the culture—neither Belgium or Germany are known for their beautiful weather or raging party scenes (well at least not Belgium). Slimbach writes that Americans abroad acquire “little cultural knowledge or language ability,” but he also states in a previous paragraph that the organizations that sponsor us have a hand to play in this too (35). I think Americans have gained the reputation that they have because there is no one to introduce us to our new host culture.
I’m finding this more so in my semester now than I did in Germany. I have an awesome program advisor but she does very little with our entire group to introduce us to traditional Belgian culture and activities. By this time last year I knew Berlin like the back of my hand because my program put on activities all over the city. But when we don’t have this, we as Americans tend to stick together and avoid the unknown, instead of embracing it.
I also think Americans are way more social beings than Europeans are. During a semester abroad it is important to learn how to be alone, not every second needs to be spent surrounded by people similar to you. However, the biggest marker of an American abroad is a lack of purpose. Study abroad recently has dropped the “study” aspect and just becomes about traveling and partying. If you can communicate why you are present in your new host community you will score many points with locals. To me this is the thing that many Americans are guilty of, even some of the students in my program. The college I attend in Brussels has an accredited business program and the reason that a few students are here is because it was the only way that credits would transfer back. Brussels was not their first pick and you can tell in the way they engage with the culture, ie they do so at a distance.
Getting involved in your host community is a sure fire way to dispel the American abroad stereotypes, they might think you’re Canadian instead! It is through dispelling this stereotype that you also gain cultural knowledge you wouldn’t have otherwise.