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January 17, 2013

American expatriotism

An experience with a new culture can force you to reexamine your relationship with your own.

These days, it’s not cool to be a proud American. As the world’s only superpower, with a government which believes it is its duty to involve itself all over the world, we’re considered bullies. And fat, yet somehow with bad taste in food.

In all honesty, earlier this year, I probably would’ve agreed with all of these things. There are many aspects of “America” that I’d prefer to distance myself from—wars declared in the name of democracy and world peace, international intimidation, Twinkies, Hummers, Walmart, etc. Six months ago, I was more likely to identify myself as an “Italian American,” who cooks pasta far more often than hamburgers. My idea of Americans focused not on our commonalities, but on our differences.

However, in the last year my life has changed dramatically. In late August, I arrived in Bologna, Italy. Five months later, I live in an apartment with an Italian (Valeria) and a Hungarian (Orsi: pronounced Or-shee). I’m a student at the University of Bologna. I have friends who are Italian, Hungarian, Greek, French, Belgian, and a host of other nationalities.

Here in Italy, it’s impossible to hide my origins. Often, I even introduce myself, Noelle, Piacere (shake hands)—sono americana. It’s only a matter of time until it becomes obvious. When I first arrived, everyone could tell just by the way I dressed, in jeans and a T-shirt. My first evening in my new apartment, Valeria and I went out to see some live music. I put on a clean shirt with my jeans and converse. She gave me a look, and the next thing I knew I was putting on a skirt instead.

Throughout the weeks, I realized the number of tendencies and habits that make me “American”—the quirks that compose American culture. Belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey with great pride (Valeria walked in, laughed, and said, “All Americans love that song.”), always preferring the informal to the formal, and becoming terribly uncomfortable when strangers invaded my precious “personal bubble.” For the first time in my life, I saw all of the little things that made me an “American” without any special prefix or specification.

Orsi and I went for a walk one day and found ourselves discussing this very topic. Each of us had arrived seeing ourselves as “globally minded,” “international” people. But now, both of us clutch to our respective cultures with intense pride.

Perhaps that’s because, at times, we can feel them slipping away. Recently, I flew home to the States to spend Christmas with my family. I found myself speaking in two languages, unable to stop my mouth from starting in Italian, knowing full well that everyone understood English much better. On my first day home, I got dressed, went downstairs and realized that an outfit I’d usually wear to go to class would be considered fancy here.

Or, maybe it is because my being an American sometimes subjects me to criticism. Almost everyone I’ve met while abroad has been incredibly kind, but occasionally someone decides to unload all of their complaints about the U.S. onto me. I’ve heard critiques of American politics and foreign policy, American agriculture, and, of course, American food. I bravely defended barbecue for all of us.

Or perhaps I clutch my American identity so tightly now because, for once, being “American” is not something that I share with everyone around me, but is the very thing that makes me unique—the thing that makes people say “wow” when they meet me and secretly wonder why in God’s name I decided to leave. The fact that I am an American makes my roommates request brownies, pancakes, and other typically American dishes. In the States, meanwhile, I get requests for pasta and biscotti.

When I met Orsi, she asked me what I liked about America. The first thing that struck me was the oddity of the question. The second was my lack of an answer. After thirty seconds of thinking, however, there were countless responses floating in my head.

So, it’s taken me five months (with another five to go) of living outside America to understand what it means to be an American. I went abroad thinking I’d experience another culture, but now I feel as though I’m just discovering my own. Even though it may not be “cool”—even though I still may not approve of needless wars, Twinkies, and Hummers, and even though I’d eat pasta over a hamburger every day of the week—I still love my country very much.

I guess that brings me to the last American stereotype: According to my friend Matteo, Americans are all very proud to be American.

Noelle Turtur is a third year in the College majoring in History. 

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