Seeing America from Europe

Aiman Khan
April 26, 2017

After I decided to study abroad, I was told time and time again that I would learn a lot about the United States and Americans while away from home. Sure enough, I have gained a completely new perspective on my home country. This has to do with my experiences with the people in the IES Abroad Vienna program itself, with the other girls in my apartment, with native Europeans, and with other Americans that I have met while traveling to other countries within Europe.

My apartment houses six girls: two girls from Chicago, two girls from Boston, a girl from Texas, and a girl from Washington DC (me). Each one of us has our own American experience, and it has made me very aware of the bubble that I have been in at the University of Virginia for the past two years – there is indeed much diversity at UVA, but I’ve learned that it isn’t that way everywhere, and that at college I’ve surrounded myself with people who think just like I do. In my apartment in Vienna, we often discuss current events and the general goings-on of the world, and it has been so eye opening to see things from different perspectives. For example, one of my flat-mates knew very few people growing up who weren’t Catholic, because her neighborhood was predominantly Catholic and she went to a Catholic school. For her and a few other girls in the apartment, let alone the whole IES Abroad Vienna program, I’m one of the only Muslim friends that they have ever had. Living with people whose experiences with diversity have been so different from mine has shown me just how varied the American experience is.

I’ve also learned a lot about how non-Americans see the US. Firstly, it is quite clear that many Europeans do not have a very high opinion of Americans. Secondly, I think this opinion is quite fair. Don’t get me wrong – I love my country and being a citizen of it. But I really hadn’t realized how other people might perceive Americans until more recently. While travelling, you can spot a certain type of American tourist from a mile away – the kind that sees a foreign country solely as a vacation destination and not as a home to millions (or billions) of people, with its own distinct culture and behavioral norms. What the residents of that country expect from an interpersonal interaction is not taken into account. American tourists have the luxury of acting this way, because everybody knows our culture and language, and we don’t really NEED to learn much about a country before traveling there. In most cities, if we don’t know what’s going on, we can expect somebody to explain things to us in English and excuse us because we’re American.

I really hadn’t been aware of this before going abroad, and I notice how it affects my interactions with Europeans – sometimes people expect the worst from you and treat you differently as soon as they realize you’re American. You’ll get questions like “How did Trump become president?” to which the answer is always “I wish I knew,” and statements like “It’s a catastrophe!!” as if I need to be told that I should be devastated about what’s going on back home. It isn’t fair to generalize people in this way, but I understand it. Americans abroad can be obnoxious, and when people notice inconsiderate behavior, it only reaffirms their opinions of the average citizen of a country where an exploitative businessman and reality-TV star has become president. I just wish that the Americans who are more thoughtful could be as easily noticed as the ones who are not, but unfortunately that’s not really how it works.

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Aiman Khan

<p>Hello! I am currently in my second year at the University of Virginia, studying Economics and Music. I&rsquo;ve decided to take a semester to study music in what is quite possibly the best place in the world to do it &ndash; Vienna, Austria. I have been playing the French horn for ten years, but I can&rsquo;t wait for the new experiences Vienna will bring me, and to document and share all my adventures!</p>

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