Model UN

“Where are you from?”

It’s the first question asked and the first fact learned about you (or possibly the second after the fact that you don’t know where [insert place or thing name here] is). And in registering the fact of one’s country, the inquisitor immediately pulls his internal file on what he knows about that country, what news he has heard of it, what his past interactions with people from there have been like. Now it’s up to you to prove or disprove any preconceived notions he may have about you before you’ve even gotten to know him.

Every individual, whether they want to be or not, is a representative of their country when traveling abroad. This is more than obvious when you overhear, for example, Europeans talking about their perceptions of Americans or Germans or the French or anyone from somewhere they are not. When you are lucky enough to befriend a couple from Australia, like we have been, and can discuss the stereotypes and perceptions head on, it doesn’t take much to realize that your own interactions with people on the streets, in the shops and especially when talking “craic” in the pubs of Ireland have an impact on how your country is perceived.

Our Australian friends are proud to be Australian and have said as much. They even brought a book showing the beautiful scenery of Brisbane, where they live, with them to Ireland and were anxious for us to stop by their apartment to take a look at it. They talk about Australia with infectious passion! We enjoy hearing about it immensely and are excited about visiting them in their home in Australia one day. In fact, I’m glad they made the offer because it reassures me that they may have a better opinion of Americans than they otherwise might have. We’re proof that Americans can “take the piss” (an Austrailian phrase that means to “take the joke”) where it seems generally assumed that all Americans are extremely prudish and religious and that we can’t laugh at ourselves.

Yesterday, Chad and I traveled to Ireland’s Aran Islands and learned about Pakistan. That’s right. There were three of us on the day trip out to the little island of Inismore. The third was a fellow by the name of Muneeb who is here in Dublin for 4 weeks for company training (he works for Erickson in their Islamabad office). So the three of us banded together for the day and had a wonderful time exploring the stone hillsides and fort of Dun Aengus. And, I learned a great deal more about Pakistan and its people.

We started initially talking about his eating habits over lunch. Because of the dietary restrictions of his Muslim religion (no pork allowed and chicken, beef, etc., must be slaughtered under specific conditions), when traveling abroad he is basically forced to become a vegetarian. Of course, our conversations throughout the day covered a range of topics, some more serious than others – the state of the economy and government in Pakistan and the political issues between India and Pakistan.

So, it was especially thrilling to see Muneeb talking with an Indian peer on the train as we all headed back to Dublin. I observed them conversing like long lost brothers (in a sense, I suppose that’s not an entirely inappropriate way to look at it). The fellow from India was named Vijay and they joined our table for the last part of the train ride. We got to talking about Pakistani food and how many so-called Indian restaurants are run by Pakistanis’ who fear there would be consequences to owning up to such a name (both in America and Ireland).

We got to talking again about the political issues between India and Pakistan only to observe that these two were communicating quite well with one another with no apparent ill will between them. Muneeb personally invited Vijay to come and visit Pakistan if ever he could and assured Vijay that he would be gratefully received by the Pakistani people. He spoke also about his attempts to acquire the visa that would allow him to travel in India and his great desire to see it. Muneeb was certainly proud to be a Pakistani and that pride came across in the passion with which he spoke of his country and his willingness to share it with all of us. I’d love to take him up on his offer for us to visit Pakistan based on his vivid descriptions of the culture and promise of the wonderful people we will find there.

So, pride of country is not only an American trait. This may not be a surprise, but perhaps not all of us realize how we, as individual Americans, can shape opinions of the world about America by our interactions in even the smallest matters when traveling abroad – from the way one treats a server in a restaurant to being aware of people trying to pass you on the street to making conversation on the train or bus.

Based on the feedback we have gotten from those non-Americans we have interacted with during our time here in Ireland, I think (I hope) we are reshaping and repairing some of the typical and, unfortunately, less than flattering stereotypes about Americans, one person at a time. I think the people we meet can tell that we do not fit the stereotype of Americans who think the world revolves around them, spoiled and rich with no concept of what happens outside our own country, and they appreciate our effort to learn more about them, to inquire and not just assume things about them based on traditional stereotypes.

I’m proud of myself for the little part I’m playing in changing, hopefully, any misconceptions out there about “all Americans”, even if it’s just a bit at a time, specifically because I am so proud to be an American. My hope is simply that our actions will challenge the idea that “all Americans” fit neatly into just one mold and that if we are any “so [stereotype]” – so arrogant, so rich, so spoilt – it is that we are really not so different in our wants and hopes and dreams as any person anywhere.

6 Responses to “Model UN”

  1. Carrie Howell Says:

    I’d like to think that travelers like you, Chad and all those who make it the “the continent” DO alter Europeans perception of us. You are proof that there ARE Americans who are interested in learning about history, the world, and culture.

    However, it is those Americans who DON’T visit, who DON’T leave America who define the negative stereotype. How many students of mine have said “FRANCE?! Why would you want to go to FRANCE?!”

    I reply, “Why? Have you been to France? You know from experience that it is a place I won’t like?”

    They know that they are talking to someone smart and so say, “Well, I just have HEARD that the French are jerks.”

    “From who? a friend or relative? or was it that one episode of South Park?”

    The superior nature most Americans have about our country WITHOUT knowing one iota about the rest of the world is what gives us that reputation. Most “proud Americans” couldn’t tell you more than 4 countries in Asia or Africa and would posture with the attitude of “Why should I need to know? I’m an AMERICAN!”

    By traveling and living abroad, you are saying to the Irish (and all other nations represented there) that you CARE about knowing some place else and recognize your place as a person in the global, not just national arena.

    Great posting. Can I go with you to Pakistan (and India)? Not during monsoon season, though.

  2. JoyLuck Says:

    Your exactly right. There is a reason the stereotype is there in the first place. Graham Greene didn’t create his “Quite American” without inspiration from a stereotype that has been out there for a long time.

    Here’s hoping most people recognize the falicy of holding onto conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conceptions, opinions, or images of a person without having spent more than 20 minutes getting to know them personally.

    And, of course, you can go with me to Pakistan and India. Would love to have the company! :>

  3. Sylvana Says:

    When I travelled in Scotland they often assumed that I was Scandinavian or Canadian. They said that they thought so partly because of my accent, but also because of the general way that I behaved. I found that interesting, but I understood what they meant because I ran into a lot of loud, rude, demanding Americans during my travels. They acted like the country was some sort of resort and everyone was there just to serve their needs and desires. I always told them that I was American, even though I had been advised to tell people that I was Canadian because there was so much resentment towards Americans. Personally, I found the resentment wasn’t toward Americans in general, it was just towards the asses that I described previously. Once people knew you weren’t that person, they treated you quite nicely.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    If it wasn’t for the U.S. of A. europeans would all be singing “Deutschland Deutschland.”

  5. JoyLuck Says:

    Sylvana, I hear you. It’s the utter oblivousness that irks me most. While, we have encountered folks from a number of countries with the loud, obnoxious and oblivious trait, I can’t say that there have been no Americans in that group. Unfortuneatly, there have been quite a few. I’m glad you “admited” to being American, though. Like you, I’m not going to be made to feel ashamed of being from America or to appologize for it. I mean, if non-Americas are so short sighted that they can only see Americans as a stereotype, I’m not sure I care what they think about me anyway. Hopefully, I don’t treat them with the same disrespect. Going back to the post, I thought it was such a shame that Pakistani’s feel they have to market their food and restuarnts as Indian instead of Pakistani. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter.

    I’m not sure why there is an “If it wasn’t for the USA” comment on here, as, from what I can tell, no one so far has said anything even remotely “Down with the USA!”-ish. I don’t hear anyone here saying they aren’t proud to be American or that they are too ashamed to admit to it.

  6. JoyLuck Says:

    Alas and anon! Okay, color me embarrassed. I got immediately defensive and missed the the “Deutschland, Deutschland” joke from “A Fish Called Wanda.” I’m sorry for biting your head of, Anonymous!

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