What is an American? Living in Spain has taught me a lot about my national identity and the contrasting nature of a “typical” American abroad. Americans, according to the rest of the world, are a truly unique breed.
He wears an American flag t-shirt, drinks a lot of beer, spends a lot of money and speaks too loudly in an accent native to the southern U.S. Or maybe New York. Or maybe the beaches of California.
She wears a lot of makeup, very little clothing, refuses to drink anything but Starbucks and points out, with her tackily french-tipped fingers, the weirdness of everything compared to home.
Ladies and gentlemen: the ugly American.
This stereotype, like most, does not serve anyone well. Unfortunately people sometimes do conform to stereotypes, often unintentionally.
It’s the laughter that escapes at the sight of a naked statue. It’s the refusal to try to understand non-English-speaking Spaniards. It’s the frustration at the public transportation. It’s the disgusted expression after drinking Spanish espresso with milk and expecting a Starbucks latte. It’s the condemning thoughts of “not American; inferior.”
The first word of advice our CSU Spanish guide told us upon arrival to Spain was that “nothing is weird, just different.”
Everyone compares. It’s easy to create a negative comparison when we are used to a certain way of living and new experiences don’t meet our expectations. Sure, it’s frustrating to want to buy something at 3 p.m. and find that all the stores are closed, but if everything were open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays, we wouldn’t be in Spain.
What I love most about traveling to new places, whether the next town over or halfway across the world, is that every place has its own unique character. Every place has a culture worthy of appreciation.
Americans’ pride in our home country is a good one; it is healthy to love where we come from and appreciate the values with which we grew up. However, if we can’t also have an open mind and realize other citizens of other countries might feel the same about where they live, then we are judgmental and arrogant.
For me, it has been a point of pride to be mistaken for a Spaniard. It means I’ve settled into living in a new place and am comfortable with the culture and have adopted Spanish women’s penchant for scarves.
Of course, soon afterward I open my mouth and it is painfully obvious from my inability to roll my R’s that I am not from this country.
At the same time, my upbringing, as well as my accent, set me apart as uniquely American. I don’t want to be an “ugly American,” but that doesn’t mean I completely assimilate.
After every meal, I thank my host mom for the food she prepared, just as I do at home. One day, she pointed out to me that Spaniards do not do this — it is her job, as a mother, to make food and that is accepted and appreciated silently. I’ve learned to say “See you later,” when I exit stores because it is more customary than saying “Thank you.” My friends and I have been lost in various cities of Spain and every time we ask for directions, the Spanish people accept our lavished and grateful thanks with a simple nod and smile.
For a nationality that can be stereotyped as condescending and rude, Americans are incredibly polite. The culture of “minding your P’s and Q’s” doesn’t go unnoticed outside of the U.S.
It’s the “thank you’s” after someone helps us. It’s the gregarious and spontaneous conversations with random people in shops and restaurants. It’s taking time to learn new words and phrases, and have Spanish history explained to us.
Home or abroad, obnoxious or respectful, Americans are only human.