Defining America

“A lot of the world has this love-hate relationship with us,” Clare Sisisky, the Director of Responsible Citizenship at Collegiate School, explained. In the collective eyes of the rest of the world, America can be complicated to define. While there are certainly overlapping ideas, the questions that I asked several students, teachers, and friends did not bring forth one specific answer. How do people who live or have lived in countries other than the United States of America view the nation?

Students from various countries involved in the 2015 International Emerging Leaders Conference pose in front of the Washington Monument. Photo credit: Ellie Fleming

Students from various countries involved in the 2015 International Emerging Leaders Conference pose in front of the Washington Monument. Photo credit: Ellie Fleming

I have lived in America my whole life, but I have been involved with different global initiatives over the years. I have been to Nicaragua twice, and both times I have been made aware of differences in culture as well as stereotypes that are commonly held about the United States. I have also been part of Collegiate School’s International Emerging Leaders Conference, an annual gathering of about 60 high school students from 12 different countries tasked with finding solutions to various environmental problems, as well as learning from experience about cross-cultural communication. As a Senior Ambassador in the conference, I made new friends from nations all over the globe. Their influence led me to widen my view of the rest of the world and the US. I was curious about how my country is perceived by my international peers and others with similar experiences, so I decided to try to untangle the numerous stereotypes and perceptions that make up a non-American’s view of the nation.

My intention is not to reduce the ideas of various diverse individuals to a few popular stereotypes from their respective nations, nor to sum up the ideas and cultures of a country based on the words of a select few representatives, nor is it to attempt to limit a nation well-known for its culturally varied population to a specific characterization. My intention is to gather together multiple different ideas and thoughts in a study of the differences between people, in a way that explores what makes up the culture of one nation from the viewpoint of those who have an outside view of everyday American life.

The 16-year-old from China didn’t have to think about it for very long. “Fat guys– a lot of fat guys, I think… and couch potatoes,” the student at Beijing New Oriental Foreign Language School at Yangzhou, who wished to be quoted by her American name, Elena, responded immediately after I asked what popped into her head at the word “Americans.” Mohamed Karabatek (‘15), who is from Syria, said he knew that while he lived there, “a lot of Syrians thought obesity was… running rampant” in the United States. This is a common perception of the physical traits that Americans share, and it is not difficult to locate the source of the stereotype. Over 68% of American adults are considered obese or overweight. Teenagers I spoke to from other nations cited the Internet and other media as the sources of this perception, as well as their own experiences with large portion sizes and unhealthy foods in America. Articles detailing junk food addictions and the prevalence of obesity in the United States are easily available online, and combined with media and pop culture as well as fact, this is enough to create a stereotype of overweight citizens that exists all over the world. In the US, they “don’t have normal food,” Esperanza Soria-Nieto, Spanish native and Upper School Spanish teacher, said about the perception of Americans as fat in her native country. “Everything comes in a package.”

Though it is a popular opinion, the idea that all Americans are overweight is not entirely universal. Fahd K., a 17-year-old senior from Casablanca, Morocco, said that he knew obesity existed in America, but “never pictured the vast majority [of Americans] to be fat.” “Teenagers… aren’t really fat,” 16-year-old high school student from India, Ananmay J., added. “All the above thirty [year old] people in America are fat.”

Perceptions of the US expand far beyond the physical appearance of its citizens. The cultural difference between India and the United States is “massive” according to Sisisky, who lived there for two six-month periods during and after college. One of the major distinctions between the two nations is family life. The US does not have a joint family system, which is normal in India. This means that, unlike in America, many generations of whole entire families live together in the same home. “The US is more of a nuclear system,” Ananmay explained. “India is all about traditions and taking over your family business and staying with your family.”

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Students from India perform at Collegiate’s Cultural Fair. Photo credit: Ellie Fleming

Ananmay also said that the broken connections between children and their parents are one aspect of American life that, in general, people from India do not like. Sisisky noted a similar cultural difference and resulting stereotype of the United States in her own experiences in India. “Many Indians said have said things to me like ‘I feel so sorry for people in the US because so many people get divorced. And so many people are… alone and don’t have good relationships with their parents.’ And those are things that to Indians are worse than poverty… to not have good relationships with your parents or to be addicted to drugs. And it’s not to say that those things don’t happen in India, but their perception of the US is that people abuse alcohol and drugs, people get divorced, people sleep around, people don’t have good relationships with their siblings or their kids or their parents.”

These perceptions of family life in America, Sisisky believes, are largely due to the media. Sisisky mentioned a speaker she once heard who discussed the popular sitcom Friends and how similar TV shows and media influenced people’s views of the US. “He said that [Friends character] Rachel slept with 65 people in one year,” Sisisky remembered. “And so if you don’t know anybody from the US or you don’t understand the US and that’s how you’re consuming [information], that’s what you think. We know that that’s not normal, but [people from other countries] don’t know that that’s not normal.”

Ananmay, who attends Modern School in New Delhi and visited America this year for the International Emerging Leaders Conference, also said that he has noticed while here that “parents are quite close with their children” and that these relationships are similar to relationships in India. “Both are good,” he added.

“What always struck me about India,” explained Sisisky, was how “people often go to India and say ‘Oh how could you live there, don’t you just feel bad all the time, and don’t you just feel pity’” due to the poverty and other social issues that the country faces. Sisisky said that these problems are not just limited to India and are also present in the US, but they are more out in the open and prominent there. “You know that’s how Indian people feel about us too,” Sisisky told me. “Every country has things that aren’t going well, and every country has great resources and culture and connections and I think that most Indians would see… their family life as far superior to the US, and as the most important thing that you can have.”

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IELC members in front of the White House in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Ellie Fleming

“A lot of people sort of have prejudice against the U.S.” Layla T., a 16-year-old from Lebanon, informed me about the Lebanese perspective of America. “So a lot of people are anti- the US government.” Though Layla, who attends the American Community School at Beirut and has been to the US several times, bases her own opinions on research rather than on perceptions commonly held in her community, she said that there is some anti-American sentiment in Lebanon. This is due to US involvement in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. America has been involved in some capacity in different areas in the Middle East, including Lebanon, since the Truman Administration, and we tend to leave a wake of violence, unrest, and disruption in the area. However, though some Lebanese hold a somewhat unfavorable view of the US government, this does not mean that they have a negative opinion of America in all regards. Many are interested in the US and want to connect with people from the United States. In addition, Layla mentioned that a lot of people in schools like her own have very similar interests as Americans. People still visit the US from Lebanon often, like Layla and her three classmates who came to America for the International Emerging Leaders Conference from Collegiate’s partner school in Beirut. “It definitely opened my eyes to other cultures and perspectives,” Layla said of her travels to the US.

Karabatek, who was born in Damascus, Syria and moved to America when he was eight, also discussed a critical image of the United States government. A student in his first year at Yale University, Karabatek wrote that he did not feel he could “speak on behalf of the Syrian people because [he is] a sole individual” and doesn’t want to “marginalize/generalize the nuances of the Syrian people’s opinions.” However, he did note that many Syrians believe “the capitalist market structure of the United States has seeped so far into the politics of the nation that individuals with considerable wealth… could run (and potentially win) for leadership over someone with policy that enhanced the lives of people across the nation.” Karabatek cited Donald Trump and his success thus far as a Republican candidate as an example of financial corruption in the US political system, as perceived by some citizens of Syria. Despite this, however, Karabatek mentioned that the US government still “possessed this poised confidence that… impressed a lot of Syrians.” Karabatek acknowledged that since living in the US he has noticed many significant issues within the country, such as constant presence of discrimination towards racial, religious, or cultural minorities, including Karabatek and his family, due to a lack of understanding. However, he stated that “it’s all relative” and that, to Syrians who may not be able to trust their own government, the American political system could easily be viewed as a “beacon of light in the darkness.”

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Clare Sisisky addresses a crowd at a Collegiate event. Photo credit: Stephanie Webb and Madison Stewart

Sisisky spoke of the frustration that some of her colleagues in Mauritius felt towards the political system of the United States. Sisisky lived in the small island country near Madagascar for one year as part of a post-graduate fellowship. She mentioned that the Mauritians were displeased by the reelection of George W. Bush, which occurred while she was living there. Sisisky described how many struggled to understand why Americans did not simply re-elect Bill Clinton, who they viewed as a more favorable choice for the presidency. From the perspective of the rest of the world, Bush’s first term as president “was not successful,” according to Sisisky. “I had to explain about term limits and how important it was to American democracy,” she said, “and then they would say [that] it must be a corrupt election” if many Americans did not want Bush as their leader. It was difficult for Sisisky’s Mauritian colleagues to understand how someone like Bush could be in such a powerful position if many did not want him to be. “So there was frustration on the part of international world of having a person in power who they thought was negligent to the concerns of the rest of the world even though the US has so much influence,” Sisisky continued. “They believe that [Bush] was ignorant to the amount of… influence the US has everywhere… People’s lives in Mauritius were influenced by decisions made in the US, and they were very upset about the reelection of George Bush, but then they were also confused about why people didn’t see that.”

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South African students perform a song and dance at the Cultural Fair. Photo credit: Ellie Fleming

Many people from South Africa “believe that Americans are very arrogant.” Thato M., who attends Lebone II College of the Royal Bafokeng, has lived in South Africa since she was born. “We have this perspective that [Americans] do not care about anybody else, and they just are for America, and they don’t want to learn any other history or learn about other people around them.”  Before visiting the United States for the first time in the fall of 2015, Thato also viewed Americans as self-assured and arrogant. However, after spending time in America and being able to interact with the population firsthand, Thato’s perspective changed immensely. “I realized that patriotism does not really mean you’re arrogant,” she said. The constant presence of the national flag and its frequent usage was one aspect of American life that surprised Thato–seeing the flag everywhere is not a usual occurrence in South Africa. “It’s just self-love that anyone else would have,” Thato explained, saying that her concept of the American nationalistic mindset shifted significantly while she was here.

The perception that Americans are arrogant is not limited to South Africa. Soria-Nieto, who lived in Seville, Spain until she was 25 years old, agreed that people in Spain generally view Americans as “very arrogant.” She specifically cited arrogance with language as a fault of people from the US. Americans “think everybody should be speaking English,” Soria-Nieto said, and explained that Americans do not try to learn other languages to communicate. “And then when you go to foreign countries you… only speak English.” Though most of the perceptions that Soria-Nieto held of the US changed completely when she first visited at age 18, she feels that this specific form of arrogance still holds true from her own firsthand observations.

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The Moroccan delegation in cultural dress. Photo credit: Ellie Fleming

Many stereotypes of the United States held by the general public of other nations are very positive. Elena spoke of the “great educations” that she believes most Americans receive, as well as how she thinks many US citizens are “very smart.” Students from Morocco and India, among other nations, told me of their plans to attend American universities. Ananmay mentioned that he has heard many good things about Americans because his sisters study here. Elena also said that, during her first experience in the US this fall, she liked how many Americans behaved. She noted that people in the US have “this different spirit. It’s like they’re motivated and inspired all the time. They have more energy… everyone has a big smile, and they’re kind.” Manale M., a junior from Morocco, said that the US is “like a typical Hollywood movie” and stated that she’s never met anyone from Morocco who feels negatively about the US as a whole. In fact, in Manale’s experience, most people from Morocco love Americans. In Manale’s school, George Washington Academy, there are many American students and social media is prominent, so she had a pretty good idea of what the United States was like prior to visiting. Manale also shared that she cares more about American pop culture than Moroccan pop culture, an idea that was seconded by Elena. “I watch a lot of American TV series and Hollywood movies. I probably do not watch Chinese TV series and movies because they are crappy. I pretty much see America as [one of the] most familiar foreign countries to me,” Elena said.

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Teenagers from many different countries pose on Brown’s Island by the James River. Photo credit: Madison Stewart and Stephanie Webb

Whether or not all or any of these stereotypes of the United States are true, the cultural differences between countries are demonstrated by the perceptions that others hold of America. However, the fact that each person holds an idea of any nation that is foreign to them, whether or not it is the US, shows how we as humans attempt to understand each other and make connections with people who are different from us. Though it is not unusual for both positive and negative stereotypes to exist about something that is unusual to us, a greater understanding of the world due to experiences with new and different individuals makes it possible to connect with people from any corner of the globe. Through increased exposure to other cultures, we can begin to separate pre-existing conceptions from reality.

“Not understanding someone is fine,” wrote Karabatek. “People shouldn’t be able to understand each other as easily as that removes the beauty of the nuances that make us who we are. Trying to understand each other through empathy, love, and humanity is what will make the difference.”

Cover photo: Jessica Durrant/Getty Images.

About the author

Ellie is a senior at Collegiate.