Monday, October 5, 2015

"If I Say America..."

Méindeg, 5 Oktouber.

"If I say America ... what do you think of?" So began the first class of "American Studies I: Ideas and Ideals" -- one of the courses I'm helping to teach at the University of Luxembourg this semester. My supervising professor and I divided the classroom into groups, challenging the students to share what values, cultural icons, and issues came to mind when they thought of the United States of America.

As they finished their lists, representatives from the group made their way up to the front to write their ideas on the board. I could hear a groan as one group realized that "Thanksgiving" was already taken.

I honestly wasn't expecting to be surprised by their responses. After studying abroad in France and speaking with friends and relatives about American stereotypes, I feel like I've heard it all. Still, I found myself surprised by what did -- and didn't -- come up in our conversations.

Among the values or ideals that came to mind? Freedom. Patriotism. The military and the Allied Forces. (I was particularly interested in the inclusion of "the Allied Forces." My supervising professor later mentioned that many Luxembourgers of a certain age consider America beyond repute because of the American soldiers who liberated the country at the end of the Second World War.) The American Dream. A strong national identity. (In a country where the national motto -- "mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn" -- means "we want to remain what we are," this reference to a particularly strong American national identity also surprised me.)

The cultural touchstones proved to more a diverse list, with everything from Hollywood and the fast food industry to the Stars & Stripes and the bald eagle. One of my favorites was the cultural concept of "Republicans vs Democrats." Although I'm accustomed to our historically two-party system, it must seem particularly foreign in a country where no fewer than SIX distinct political parties currently hold seats in the national legislature,

Of course, the most unpleasant aspect of this exercise for me was reading what students considered to be "issues" in America. Racist violence. Trans- and homophobia. Health care. Government surveillance. Gun control (listed by two out of the five groups).

References to racism, health care, and gun violence were unsurprising -- if a sad reminder of the international reputation of our country. Discrimination in Europe is based less on race than on ethnicity; as a result, my supervising professor explained, racial tensions in the United States can prove difficult for European students to understand. And in my own experience, Europeans also tend to scoff at our nation's healthcare system and apparent fondness for dangerous weapons. I was more surprised by some of the other issues raised, including trans- and homophobia. Although I would never argue that these are NOT serious issues in the United States, I found it interesting that European students would identify them as uniquely "American" problems.

I urged the students to consider the interconnected nature of their lists. Obviously, all three lists shared something in common -- they were all about the USA -- but the similarities ran deeper. As an example, I pointed out the link between the first term under each heading: freedom, Thanksgiving, and gun policy. Aren't these topics all interrelated? Isn't the entire concept of Thanksgiving about Pilgrims giving thanks for their newfound religious and political freedom? And doesn't the debate about gun control center around those who promote the freedom to bear arms and those who argue for the freedom to live in a safe society?

Likewise, I pointed out, the ideal of the American Dream pervades both Hollywood films and debates on healthcare while the concept of a "patriotic" sacrifice of privacy is often used to justify government surveillance programs.

Our finished list.

Although the class turned into quite the learning experience for me, I was determined to make a few points of my own. When one of the students mentioned that access to guns was a freedom guaranteed to Americans by Constitutional amendment, I interjected: "It's interesting you said that, because it's actually a point of contention. The Constitution doesn't say, 'You get a gun! You get a gun! Everyone gets a gun!'" (Cue laughter. What can I say? I do a good Oprah impersonation.) We had talked briefly in a previous class about how texts are interpreted differently by everyone who reads them and how their meaning can change with time, so I reminded the students that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" was ensured in a time when Americans were quite literally forming militias to fight British troops, not storing semi-automatic weapons in their basements.

The purpose of my Fulbright grant is not, of course, to convince Luxembourgers that not all Americans are crazy gun-toting fanatics. (Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate that this is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.) But I can't help but feel it would be a positive side effect.

I just love that video! I know that sentiment towards Americans -- and towards the United States -- varies greatly around the world, but I think that I have it pretty easy here in Luxembourg. Don't get me wrong -- they don't pull any punches. I have since had similar discussions with students at both the university and high school level and most students have brought up the same ideas: that Americans work too hard and yet are too lazy, that they don't learn foreign languages, that they are obsessed with guns. (And they all speak English very well ... so they have no trouble expressing their feelings!)

But that being said, these students are a very Americanized generation that knows just as much -- if not more -- about American music, television, and film as I do. (All I have to do to get them smiling is ask about the ubiquitous European favorite, How I Met Your Mother. No, really. They are OBSESSED.) Although these students might be quick to make scathing comments about American politics, they're still interested in my country and what it has to offer. I'm really looking forward to teaching them that there's more to the United States of America than just nine spectacular seasons of How I Met Your Mother.

Although they really are spectacular.


  1. What an interesting post! I have also seem - at a high school level- talks about issues in the US that arent necessarily unique to us.

  2. So very interesting! Really makes me think. Loved that video too!