(The best perspective comes while in transit.)
A few weeks ago I took the tram up the coast to go hiking. I’m at that place where I have finally begun to master the equilibrium of traveling – what to bring, what to leave behind, how and when to pack without panicking, appropriate amounts of breakfast and caffeine and time to get out of the house. So I had my book, my music, and a few hours of beautiful coastline to slide by outside the window.
Then my headspace was invaded by the sound of a group of fellow travelers, a few rows behind me. They were young, they were loud, and they were very, very American.
I don’t know what it is about my fellow citizens that make obnoxious American tourists that much more irritating than obnoxious tourists in general. (This is also ridiculous considering that 99%* of the people I love and respect are, in fact, American.) Perhaps it’s that I can understand them. Perhaps it’s that their tonterías no longer have the novelty of eavesdropping on Spanish. Perhaps I’m just ashamed to be lumped together into a demographic I find irritating. Perhaps it’s the valley girl voice thing that I find grating even back home.
I got up and moved to a different car, more out of frustration with myself than out of irritation at them. (Though partly out of irritation at them.)
I think I assumed that traveling and living abroad would automatically make me more understanding, empathetic, and tolerant. As it turns out, it’s far from an automatic process. If anything, in a new country it’s easier to jump to conclusions, make snap judgements, and cling to secondhand, on-the-spot stereotypes as keys to untangling the overwhelming mess of new experiences. Keeping this in check depends on a lot of effort.
I think individual relationships are key. Lots of them. Broad assumptions about any group – Erasmus students, British tourists, middle-aged Spanish women, Americans abroad, kids who grew up rich, the Religious Right, people who find dates online – are increasingly more difficult to maintain once you start making personal connections with people. Not in a token “I’ve got a ___ friend” way, or a one-shot “once this type of person did this terrible thing to me,” but really knowing people, individuals, who have endearing and inspiring qualities even though they sometimes eff it all up.
More than anything I want to be more self-aware. Living here in a new place has made me feel like I am constantly under a magnifying glass, scrutinized by others – I am the American spectacle, after all – but even more so by myself. This might be the result of too much free time, but I think it is part of the constant process of analyzing my surroundings, which along the way brings just about everything about me into question – my accent, my hobbies, my appearance, what I eat, what I don’t eat, my politics, my sense of humor, my belief systems, and so on.
Being overly self critical is just as dangerous, but I think it’s possible to walk the line between neurosis and self-knowledge. Perhaps it’s a way to channel the mass of judgey feelings into some kind of healthy self-improvement.
This is part of being a cultural ambassador, which is one of the reason why Fulbright pays for people like me to come live somewhere new for a year. The impact of this experience on me as an individual is inevitable, but the idea is that somehow I’m here to influence Spain’s view of the United States. My vast country of origen is not just one giant combination of Friends, Jersey Shore, and American Pie. Not everyone lives in California or New York. Not all Americans eat fast food and a terrible diet in general. For that matter, not all Americans eat a gigantic breakfast – eggs, pancakes, toast, bacon, sausages, etc. – every single day. We don’t have one national dish, and we don’t have holidays that everyone celebrates.
During my time here I’ve tried to focus on people as individuals, not people as poster children for somebody’s idea of culture. I’ve tried to share information about my personal experience in the United States, and facilitated individual connections between students here and students back home through our pen pal letters. Along with individual snapshots I think it’s important to connect with a much wider and more diverse range of experience – many of the things I do are not because I am an American, but because I am Sara. Really that’s all it comes down to. People deserve the benefit of honest, individual experience.
With this in mind, I would like to apologize to the young folks on the train who I glared at and tried to escape so gracelessly. I am not irritated by American kids abroad. I am irritated by people talking too loudly too early in the morning when I am trying to write thoughtful things on the train.
*No real math was used in the making of this blog post.