You’re Not Just American: You’re America

When my international and Austrian buddies ask what I am studying, and I reply with a cheery, “English Literature and Linguistics in the American Studies Program!”, almost collectively I can expect a semi-blank expression.

“Aber, warum?” But why?

Fair. Fair question.

Why come all the way to Austria to study America?

Yes, I understand the confusion.

It’s not that though: it’s not studying America, it’s studying a non-American perspective on important and vital texts that helped shape countries and ideologies. How absolutely, unfathomably more interesting it is to study American literature from this non-American perspective.

To engage in similar debates that I’ve had in my previous classes at Emporia State University, only with profoundly different directions.

It’s getting out of this bubble of the influence of American politics and American ideals in literature and examining texts with a literal worldview.

It’s also excellent insight on how the rest of the world views America.

I will try not to blanket or generalize anyone here, my classmates represent the entire world as much as I represent America. It’s too small of a sample size. But collectively, many agree on similar stances of Americans, so I believe it to be quite representable.

Perhaps the most notable example of insight into American portrays is from my From Rags to Riches? Social Class in American Literature. My professor is this anomaly of information, perhaps the most passionate social class hero and well-informed feminist supporter I have met.

We put pressure on such topics as, “Why do Americans have a higher overall level of outspoken confidence over Europeans?” and, “why do Americans tend to have a lot of acquaintances and few ‘best’ friends, while Europeans operate on the reverse?”

My international classmates view American as a self-confident, extroverted ethnicity will no shortages of self-efficacy. I’ve been told, “you have the certain…passionate light in your eyes that makes you obviously American” multiple times.

I have been told that Americans have obvious and vocal dreams; that our society has raised us to be individualistic and ambitious over the more collectivist societies of Europe.

When you study abroad you become your country in the minds of others. Do you think that the industries should better prioritize the manufacturing of dog textiles? In the eyes of an international student, suddenly America believes all dogs should be clothed.

Are you in the habit of sneezing before you drink wine? Suddenly America sneezes before they ingest alcohol.

Do you like reading Action Adventure novels over Romance? Suddenly America is obsessed with the Bourne Ultimatum and because that Parisian chick in the back of the room likes reading Nora Roberts, the Romance genre is for the French.

Honestly, it gets a bit old to be generalized. To be blanketed together with the more audible values of America that you may or may not agree with.

I welcome this, though.

How else will I learn not to blanket others besides being put in the box myself?

-Josie, Austria

Ich heiße Josie. Und du?

I don’t know if one can possibly fathom how large the world is; a person can spend their entire life traveling amongst the countries and yet experience only fractions of what the world produces. It doesn’t matter how many people you meet, how many mountains you climb, how many cups of coffee you drink…there will be more people, more mountains, more coffee.

Sound daunting?

That’s what I thought, too. Especially when it came to narrowing down the number 196 to one country in which I would spend the 2016/2017 academic year.

I had essentially three desires: I wanted to go somewhere were I could learn a different language, somewhere that would take me out of my American comfort bubble, and somewhere nestled amongst mountains.

Oh, also, yeah, the university had to have classes that would fit my major. Yeah, because I study abroad in order to study abroad.

After much googling I settled upon the city of Graz in southeastern Austria. Austrians speak German (but if you ask Germans they would say that Austrians speak Austrian German, not German) and in this magical off-brand accent that fluctuates up and down like a song and differs depending on in what region of Austria one is. Graz itself is perfect because it is quite international, meaning that although the primary language is German one can always count on asking in English for late night assistance back home from a native. Furthermore Graz is the perfect launchpad. RyanAir flies out of two cities in Austria with flights ranging anywhere from a whopping €6,99 to €24,99. The train system from Austria is phenomenal, a ticket to Slovenia costs €9 and a bus ticket costing around the same to get to Budapest.

Studying abroad for an entire is, for me, embodied into one word: practice.

Upon graduation and perhaps a masters degree, I would like to join the Peace Corps and teach English with the Let Girls Learn campaign. In order for this dream to become more achievable I need to practice two distinct things: 1). I need to practice living abroad and adapting to societies and cultural norms and 2). In order to become a good language teacher I should first go through the experience of learning a language.

Studying abroad has given me opportunities to practice both of these things, and let me tell you something: it has been so much harder and so much more humbling that I could have imagined.

It’s hard to let go of one’s comforts. Perhaps this appears quite obvious, but it’s surprisingly harder than what you think right now. I’ve always considered myself to be an adaptable person, choosing to live as mindfully and as empathetic as possible. But living in a foreign country has completely stripped away “needs” I thought I had while simultaneously reinforcing what makes me Josie.

The language learning has also not gone as grandly as I first imagined. I took the German intensive course for 3 weeks before University classes began–which is something I completely recommend for anyone studying abroad in a different-language speaking country–but it came at a bad time. While going to German class 3 hours a day, I was also dancing around Graz opening Austrian bank accounts and registering with the city of Graz three separate times and meandering my way through bureaucracy. I was figuring out how to get to IKEA and how to grocery shop and how to pick my way through the cities.

I had no time to sit down and process what German I was learning. To reinforce it. And the interactions I had with other international students were almost all in English, the universal language it appears, because there was so much else going on we needed some sort of comfort. Also because non-native English speakers seem to jump at chances to practice English, just as I do when meeting native German speakers.

Now that University has leveled out and the bureaucracy nightmare has been handled, now that I have established myself as not-a-crazy-person to my pals here and I don’t have to worry about miscommunications as I would have if we had spoken only German, I have revamped my motivation to acclimate to the German language. To live and play in the language, thereby living and playing in the culture by extension.

The more motivated I am to experience the culture, the better I am at this “living in a foreign country alone” shenanigans that I apparently want to do for the rest of my life.

It’s all coming together now. Slowly. There are still quite humbling moments when I feel quite proud of myself for piecing together a nice sentence, only to be left blank faced with the reply that I get.

I have never had quite so much fun with life as I have had these past three months. And I know that this trend is going to continue. Beauty and enjoyment exists in juxtaposition; in order to experience peace and gratitude and comfort, it’s necessary to know what chaos, discontent and eruption feels like.

Life lived irregularly > the comfort zone.

-Josie, Austria