National Identity (Luanne Spence)

You’ve checked off the endless lists. You have done all your pre-departure shopping. You have said “see ya later” to your closest friends. You have even managed to make it the airport without your mom having a nervous breakdown.

The nice woman in the airport takes your luggage (which at 49.5 lbs each, barely fit the requirements.) “What a success” you think as you sigh in relief, “my baggage is all taken care of!”

While it might be easy to stuff four months of shoes and sweaters into suitcases, no one really prepares you for the cultural baggage that you are also unknowingly bringing with you on your trip.

There is a funny thing about being American or as they say in London – “from the States.” No matter where you go, there seems to be a big red white and blue banner laminated across your both frightened and excited face.

This idea, of being “American,” is the first and most prominent form of cultural baggage that joins you for your journey, and frankly – is with you for the rest of your life.

Think of it as a travel “carry on.” It is always with you and it holds not only what you consider important and necessary, but your personal and cultural identity.

Although, I can’t directly speak for all countries, my travels to Morocco, Spain, Italy, France, and of course England, have all shed light on my very own cultural baggage.

I am louder.
I ask more questions.
I get frustrated when things are slow.
I expect good customer service, ALWAYS.
I complain about even little things.
I think all people should understand English.
I walk on the wrong side of the road, because to me it is “right.”
I roll my eyes when people ask if I am from New York.
I don’t understand why they don’t eat Ranch Dressing.
I hate paying for grocery store bags.
I talk on the tube even though everyone else is quietly reading.

The list could go on for days, but it is the small traits like those above, that make us who we are. It is not that they are “bad” or “forbidden” but they are reflective of where we come from and how we grow up.

When adjusting to a new country, traveling, or even studying abroad it becomes vital to take the needed time to look at how you portray yourself and your cultural to others.

When studying abroad you almost have to look at yourself as a “guest” in someone else’s world. Just because you are from the USA, does not mean you are entitled to everything.

I hate to admit it, but for the sake of this blog it is important to acknowledge – I even find myself angered that in other countries not everyone can speak English. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Gezze, wouldn’t it be easier if the whole world spoke my language?”

That is our downfall, not only our society’s but our generation’s, as well. We far too often forget that our lifestyle is far different from others, and that is okay. In fact, that is what makes life interesting and that is the reason programs like this are so valuable. They illuminate the beauty in other cultures.

Life abroad seems to require a little more of the “golden rule” than one might think. It is about observing your surroundings and making the effort to better understand them, to embrace them, and to soak it all in. For instance, Londoners are far more reserved, they constantly use sarcasm, they buy food in smaller portions, they enjoy quite tube rides, they live in quaint proportions, they speak proper English, have a beer or two at a pub after work, they take their time when strolling down the street, and they love “taking the piss” out of friends. That is what makes London great though. While it may be different, it has its own identity – just like America has its own identity.

How we are raised, where we grow up, and our parental influence become major variables in who we are. A “Londoner” and a “Chicagoer” are bound to view things in their own unique way. Neither right, neither wrong.

It is, however, vital not to let your personal baggage hinder your experience abroad. Remember to be open-minded. Do not take offense to things that are new, but rather fully plunge into them. If you do not understand something, it is okay to ask.  And most importantly, keep in mind, you are not there to leave your mark, you are there to let this new world leaves its mark on you.

Luanne Spence is studying abroad in London, England, with the Foundation for International Education (FIE).

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