- “All Americans are fat!”
- “All Americans carry guns with them!”
- “It’s normal to be killed for murder in America!” (the death penalty)
- “All Americans are in a rush!”
- “All Americans are stupid!”
- “All Americans have big cars, and big houses, and big TVs, and big asses!”
- “All Americans eat McDonalds every day!”
- “Americans are lazy.”
- “Americans are always on vacation! Whenever we’re on vacation in Scotland, we see Americans!” << HAHAHA
So, drowning in a flood of stereotypes is not a fun place to drown. I would definitely rather drown in a sea of champagne. As someone who is addicted to plyometrics, trained for a marathon, attended an esteemed university, would only consider touching a gun for sustainable purposes, hasn’t walked into a McDonalds since I was twelve, spends four hours a day reading, plans to never own a television (we’ll see…), etc., etc., a sea of American stereotypes is a really horrible place to drown.
Despite my horror at being called a fat, commercialized, idiotic, conservative, t-shirt wearing, Catholic-but-not-practicing slob, I was the teacher in this situation, and had brought the lesson upon myself, so I had to swallow my pride and robotically acknowledge “yes, this is a stereotype of the United States” after each overly enthusiastic shout-out from my class. Why were they enjoying this so much? I had to grin and bear martyrdom for the sake of the lesson. There is a lesson in having your origins horribly berated, after all.
After we were done bashing the United States, I had my students take a look at their own country. We watched two pretty cool videos (both made by French people, so as not to receive any concerned phone calls from parents wanting to know what the American assistant was teaching in class) about French stereotypes and life in Paris versus life in New York.
My students acknowledged that many of the French stereotypes as true, such as the baguette and “stinky cheese”, but they also put down many as being ancient, such as women not shaving their armpits, the beret, and the constant consummation of wine and champagne. They added that not all French people are rude, just Parisians; clearly there are some national stereotypes that need to be addressed in every country, too. As a Northern Califonian, I am guilty of regional snobbery, and promise to work on that. At the end of our lesson, the student who had been the harshest on Americans and the most defendant of French culture announced, “stereotypes are funny, but they are not true about everyone. You are not any of these things, I hate cheese and everyone here shaves their armpits.” You just hit the American with the Hummer, my boy.
So, if the moral of my lesson is that stereotypes are meant to be taken lightly, and do not apply to all people, but have some basis in truth, how am I to feel about the American stereotype? Upon reflection, it’s dead on. I miss drinking coffee out of my giant tumbler all day, every day. I miss putting my feet up on furniture. Sometimes, I just want to eat an exorbitant amount of Chicago-style pizza. I, a female athlete, would like to be able to do my market shopping drenched in sweat and a baggy pair of pants. I would like to have all three pairs of my gym shoes with me: indoors, outdoors, and weight lifting. When I do watch TV, The League is one of my favorite shows, a horribly vulgar depiction of the “average” fantasy football league/group of friends. I miss paying 20 dollars for a large portion that will last me four days, as opposed to 20 euros for food that I am not allowed to take home with me. I think SUVs are very practical for driving to the snow with a load of gear and children. For once, I am proud to say that I am a typical American in many ways, and feel lost without some of my daily habits and luxuries. At home, I’m quick to be cynical about American culture, but my students today reminded me that Americans are also “enthusiastic” and “optimistic” and “practical”. Stereotypes tend to be horribly unforgiving, but they can also be idealistic and flattering. In defending my culture, I have forgotten to take pride in its good qualities.
The American stereotypes that I fulfill do not quite live up to eating McDonalds every day or living in a hole of Keeping up with the Kardashians, but they are the basis for exaggeration. Americans eat food in their university classes! They are relaxed! They think for themselves! Sometimes, to a foreigner, these concepts are exciting (especially to a teenage boy, the main demographic of my students.) At times, these habits are appalling, even to myself (not the free thought part.) I do not want to be an ambassador of fast food, which is why I allowed myself and my culture to be belittled for thirty minutes by high schoolers. One of my professor’s favorite catchphrases is “if you don’t like something, chose reform over abandon” (paraphrase that I like better than “the fact that you can be spiritual and not religious is a myth,” which is a whole different topic.) Anyways, I face a lot of stereotypes here in France. It’s offensive when someone sees my purchases at the grocery store and asks me where the junk food is. I once cried (in private) when, after a particularly long day, someone said, “You’re American? There’s a McDonalds over there,” while pointing, as though I could be herded. I have no power to change individual opinion, but I can continue to buy my spinach and sunflower seeds and see if it makes any difference.
I’ve met some brilliant people from all over the world, and if there’s anything that stereotypes teach, it’s the naivity of the beholder. I do not want my students to hold a closed-minded image of the US when I leave. Yes, they can go on loving rap music and eating at McDonalds; I have no power to stop that, nor any authority to try. I do, however, have the power to be present, and show them that we find humor and sadness and frustration and joy in the same human experiences, despite our gap in age, interests, or even language. I am paid as a “cultural ambassador,” and I didn’t fully understand the meaning of that title until today. To drown in a flood of stereotypes you’ve simply got to float above them, and when they’re true, embrace them, because stinky cheese is really, really, really good, despite its smell.