I don’t think about being an American. It is an element of my identity that runs as an undercurrent through my subconscious. My American-ness is only awakened on patriotic holidays, during election years, and in times of war. As an American citizen living in the United States, I am not required to consider my nationality on a regular basis.
However, once I left the United States, this seemingly small element of my identity suddenly became monumentally important. Whereas I was always the insider on US soil, I found myself as an outsider. Although I am phenotypically similar to many Europeans as a result of my ethnic heritage, I quickly realized that I look distinctly “American”.
Even before I open my mouth and speak English, with an American accent inaudible to my own ear, the most basic simpleton can see from my stance, gait, mannerisms, and way of dressing that I grew up on the other side of the ocean. Even though I wished I could blend in, I was unable to disguise my identity.
Before I left for Prague, I read multiple travel blogs about how to dress in Europe. I consulted both my male and female friends who have traveled internationally about how to act overseas. I bought new clothes I intended to wear as invisibility cloaks so that I could assimilate to a culture I knew very little about. I chose mellow colors, as suggested by the travel blogs. Conservative necklines and dress hems filled my suitcase.
All I wanted was to appear less American, and I thought I was prepared. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it would require more than a few neutral colored blouses and knee-length dresses to pass as European.
If I truly wanted to hide my identity and transform my aesthetic, I would need to immerse myself in Czech culture. Given the month I had to study, I didn’t have enough time to properly assimilate. Although European clothing is nearly identical to American clothing, I realized that there is no easy way to mask my American identity. I would have to change my posture, mannerisms, habits, and langue. I simply did not have enough time to undergo a complete transformation. As a result, for the first time in my life, I embraced my American-ness.
Instead of branching out to meet new people, I stuck with my fellow American students. We felt comfortable with each other, we understood each other, and our communication wasn’t impeded by any linguistic or cultural barriers. When any one of us experienced a cultural conflict, we turned to each other for advice and sympathy. Whether we intended to do so or not, we became an exclusive group. We did everything together and unified around our shared experience as Americans. Although this shared sense of unity brought us together, it also had a detrimental effect on our ability to make friends with the locals.
If I had entered the country on my own, without a support system from the US, I would have undoubtedly felt less comfortable. However, it would have forced me to learn more of the language, make friends with new people, understand the culture, and step outside of my comfort zone. At times, it seemed as if I was living in an American bubble within the heart of the Czech Republic.
We joked about being rowdy Americans without putting too much thought into how our behavior may have been perceived. We expected the locals to speak English because we had been told it was a popular language in Europe. When there were miscommunications, we felt ignorant for not knowing Czech, yet wished that the locals knew more English. We looked, dressed, and acted like tourists, which is nothing to be ashamed of. But a part of me wishes I could have looked less like a pink flamingo on parade through a herd of zebras.
However, it must be said that it is natural to feel out of place in a different country. It is easy to cling to the familiar when one’s surroundings seem foreign.
Yes, I felt safe, secure, and comfortable, but I was never forced to discover my global identity apart from my American identity. There is nothing overtly problematic about experiencing a sense of security in a foreign country. I made friends with many American students while I was abroad, friendships that I hope will last for the years to come. I had a wonderful time exploring new places with familiar faces. Yet, I wish I had been confident enough to branch out and learn about European culture outside of the classroom. Next time I travel, I will acknowledge my American-ness, yet do my best to explore the world with a fresh perspective and a mind open to discovery.
Collegian writer Natalaeh Small can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook here.