Travel Log #9: “Exploring Stereotypes” By Madeleine Harder. Brussels, BE

Coming to Belgium, I did not know of any stereotypes about my host culture. I knew that Belgium was known for its chocolate, beer, and waffles but that is not exactly a stereotype—more a matter of fact. Belgium is such a small country that globally it has few known stereotypes, however within the European bloc Belgium has been subject to ridicule. Called by France as semi- France and labeled by the Swiss as having bad chocolate, these are some of the nicer things that have been said about the Belgians. Even within its own borders, Belgium has stereotypes deeply engrained into its culture.

Once I got here I learned about the conflict between the native Dutch speakers and the native French speakers. Each group has made up many stereotypes for the other population. Meanwhile, the German speakers who represent less than 1% of Belgium have been relatively left alone. Belgium is split into 2 regions: Wallonia, the French speaking south and Flanders, the Dutch speaking north. While, the German speaking population resides in Eastern Belgium by the land bordering Germany. Brussels is a special exception to Belgian geography because it is technically in Flanders but is almost entirely French speaking. What I mean to say is you will get dirty looks if you try and use Dutch to get around.

The Dutch view the French speaking population as the dumber half of Belgium. And it’s kind of true, students of the Dutch-speaking school system score significantly higher on standardized tests. Residents of Flanders view themselves as very hard workers and see the Walloons as lazy. I am not as well versed on the stereotypes the French have assigned to the Dutch but generally they believe the Dutch give too many kisses and watch too much television. While these stereotypes seem light and childish, the Dutch legitimately think they are better than the French. And in the battle of languages (but language only) I side with the Dutch.

Living in Germany has really colored my perception of the French language and by default the people who call this language their mother tongue. Linguistically, Dutch is the language that bridges German and English. My experience with German has actually led me to favor the Dutch language in Belgium. Some of the students that I have become friends with at my university are originally from Flanders and though they can speak perfect French, claim they have a “distaste” for the language. It’s hard to describe exactly why, but the Dutch sounds (and German as I’ve found out) are very different than the ones in French. It’s physically challenging to speak the other language. And throw in the fact that the Dutch view the French as inferior; they will not try to accommodate them.

A stereotype at my university, regardless of what language you speak at home, is that only the most academically gifted students pursue a minor. It is far less common to do so than in the United States. This was very surprising to me because as a communications major I had to declare a minor. When people asked me what I studied the first week of this semester and I said I had 2 minors, people looked at me like I was Albert Einstein reincarnated. While I liked the attention, I think this stereotype endures because the quality of education in Belgium (even in the “dumber” French schools) is very good. They do not need to add a minor to their studies and those who do, do so because they want to.

On the other side of things, Belgians view the Americans as “cute.” They do not take us seriously. This is ok for me because I try to speak French to the best of my ability and when I fail (which is quite often) they have no problem speaking in English to me. This is very different than the French who sneer at Americans that try to make an effort speaking a language other than their own. This weekend I will be traveling to Paris and I’m a little nervous about how I will be treated. My experience in Belgium as an American has been very good. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with the American Ambassador to Belgium and when she was describing her family’s transition to life in Brussels she had nothing but positive things to say.

europe-according-to-the-united-states-of-americaI had way too much fun looking for a picture to accompany this post and in the end I couldn’t choose just one. The first is a map of what Americans associate with each European country and I was not surprised to find out that this was chocolate for Belgium. At the same time, it’s anticlimactic because this isn’t a stereotype—there is actually chocolate in Belgium. Godiva was founded in Belgium in 1926 and in the United States this is considered high quality chocolate so of course the Belgians get a chocolate label. In Belgium, though, Godiva is equivalent to Hershey’s. There’s better chocolate out there but Godiva will get the job done if you are having a serious craving.

europe-according-to-bulgariaThe second map I am posting with this entry is how Bulgarians view Europe. I found this map much more interesting and thought provoking. The Bulgarian’s labeled Belgium with the term “God.” This stems from the capital of the European Union being located in Brussels. It is a very common view within Europe that the Belgians abuse holding the seat of, whatever you classify the EU as. Other common stereotypes claim that the Belgians are bureaucrats who love their paperwork. While I can personally attest that Belgian’s love their paperwork this does not have the same sinister connotation that “God” does. This dark and power hungry image is what Belgium is to many other European countries. However, I don’t necessarily think this is the Belgians fault. Skepticism of the EU is running at an all time high and it is important to separate Belgium from the EU because they are not the same. And I think that Belgium has taken on reputations that only the European Union should hold.

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