Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“Typical American” Part 2 / 3

[ - continued from part 1/3 ]

I must stress that Inge and Andreas weren’t picking on me or intentionally offending me, but their comments were a clear reminder to me that America really did have some heavy stereotypes attributed to it in Europe, and it was my little personal project to shed some light on to which stereotypes I may fit, which are completely false, and ultimately a positive light to share about my home country [deeper than the shallow assumptions that we are all morbidly obese, unilingual inhabitants of our own ignorant, secluded continent]

The following days after these questions had me thinking and finding interesting connections in some of my classes at the University that related to these internal debates I was having within myself of what is an American.

I am taking an American government and politics course [which may seem like a blow off], but the class is a great opportunity to sit alongside German and European students and hear different opinions in our discussions that take place in both German and English.

The opening paragraphs of our textbook really opened my eyes to the importance of the course, since the author, Robert Singh, introduced his topic by addressing 9/11. He referred to a part of the world that was largely misunderstood by other countries, one where “the public image of the diverse people of the region was distorted and partial, a reflection of simple stereotypes and brute prejudices all too easily gleaned from popular-culture.”

Discussing 9/11 and a culture of people largely shrowded in mystery would make a reader assume that Singh was referring to the Middle East, but turn the page, and you would realize that he was talking about the United States.

I actually really enjoyed this approach, since it made me realize that, in the huge expanse of the United States, there are so many places and people that are misconstrued, or more so, unheard of in the Global community. I have learned quickly living in foreign countries that the overwhelming image of America is New York, California and Florida, and beyond this – maybe a trip to Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon to diversify things – America is largely unknown.

[ break to reality, America is not New York - and it isn't a fairy tale either- but there ARE still good people there and good things to learn about the nation. ]

I was comforted by this idea since it related to my challenge of just having to defend my background of coming from Metro Detroit, Michigan. To many Germans, they know a few things – Eminem, a lackluster auto industry, “Most Dangerous City in the US” [very old statistic from the 80’s I should add, things have drastically changed!], but that is about all.

Singh follows his introduction that after 9/11 the importance of really understanding American – meaning the entire country, and not just the major cities, Wall Street and some foreign policy – is crucial to really understand modern international politics.

In another class over literature, some American literature was discussed including Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” which has been read by every student in America during history class. In the pamphlet, Paine argues the unique culture in the American colonies vs. the notion that the people were still British, and he notes how many group themselves with like-minded people when he is away from his home.


It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the name of neighbour; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of townsman; if he travel out of the county, and meet him in any other; he forgers the minor divisions of street and town, and calls him countryman, i. e. countyman; but if in their foreign excursions they should associate in France or any other part of Europe, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of Englishmen.

And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countrymen; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones; distinctions too limited for continental minds.


Excerpt from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"

Putting into a modern perspective, when someone is outside of their city, they refer to their group of their metropolitan area [metro Detroit], after this, the state [“I am from Michigan”], from this a region [“I am a Midwesterner”], and when abroad, with his nation [“I am an American”].

This thought really had me thinking, even though Paine’s “Common Sense” was over 300 years old. This train of thought is really how I group myself with people too – I referred to myself in my German class with Americans as the Michigander, but a few weeks prior in DC, when I met others from around Michigan, we found our differences and similarities by referring to ourselves with our cities or metro areas.

Now in Germany, I am “The American”, but as I have already noted from the breakdown of where I come from in America, this can get as specific as the unique community and culture that I have in my square mile suburb amongst many in Troy, Michigan. This begins to reveal the difficulties and the limitations of how I can represent myself as an American, and also a reason why the notion of “Typical American” is so convoluted and unknown abroad, like here in Germany.

[ This personal reflection on the first completed 1/4th of my year in Germany was a bit long. It will be in 3 parts. To see them all together, click the pink link below for "Typical American". These links group blog posts together with topics that I write about and cluster as a group. ]

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