On Being An American Abroad

usflag_med1.jpgAs a native speaking English teacher, you don’t usually have the ability to leave your nationality up in the air that you do as a traveler. The people you work with – students – will usually know where you’re from, but they also have the opportunity to see you as a person.

Nowadays, some from the US wonder if it is safe to be abroad. Obviously there are a whole host of factors which affect this, and presuming to give a definitive answer would be silly. Your safety depends on where you go and what you do, among other things. Nevertheless, my experience in a variety of countries post-September 11 has been largely positive.

My best experiences with locals in general have been in Sarajevo, though perhaps my most challenging experience also occurred there…with another native English speaker.

I wouldn’t want to point out the country of someone who I’m sure does not represent her compatriots, so I’ll just say it was the representative of some well known University Press.

She was my school in order to sell the new version of the textbook; my attendance at this small meeting was optional, but I needed the teachers’ room while it was going on and felt being there would demonstrate my interest and work ethic. The Bosnian director was present, and introduced us by first name only. Also in attendance were two colleagues from Russia and Romania.

The conversation began, and I didn’t say much. I was a new teacher and just wanted to listen. Somehow, several “American” topics came up, perhaps in the context of “British or American English” in the textbooks: “They (Americans) push their culture on us,” she said. She was also astounded at how apparently dense the Americans she met in New York were: when she requested “takeaway” (instead of “to go”) they didn’t understand her. In the middle of some third, fourth or fifth comment, my Director finally pointed out “We’ve got one American right here, why don’t you ask her.”

This woman’s face went red immediately. “Katie’s been very quiet,” she said. These views are certainly no shock to me – some of them I don’t disagree with. But clearly she’d had no idea I was American when she was saying them, and most certainly would not have been quite so forthcoming if she’d known.

Somehow, my only feeling when she started was “I hope she doesn’t realize that I’m American.” Had I not been so consumed with this concern – plus the concern that I had made the transgression by somehow not letting her know she was embarrassing herself – I would have been in the aisles with laughter at her reactions. Talk about a faux pas.

It was awkward but I got over it. Another teacher – one local who hadn’t been there for the meeting but who had heard about it all – was the only one to bring it up to me, which actually meant a lot. She likened it to facing people’s assumptions about Bosnia and how she didn’t much like that. I suppose one of the lessons I learned was “You don’t necessarily know who you’re talking to, so be prepared to take full responsibility for the views you choose to put forth in a discussion.”