Mar1120099:40 am

Consider the real Canadians

Amy Elizabeth Smart, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes Americans to task for the dodge we’ve been known to adopt abroad: we’re from Canada, we say. What brings about this lie in us? Smart reports:

When asked why, almost no [American students] cite fear of physical violence. They’re mostly worried about hostile comments, rejection, or heated political debates. Above all, many dread being associated with the Ugly American, the obnoxious know-it-all traveler who brays questions like “Why can’t you speak English?” and “You call this tiny thing a cup of coffee?”

A few months ago, the Washington Post and I hoped that Barack Obama’s election means, among many other things, that Americans won’t feel like they have to resort to the Maple Leaf anymore. Smart argues that it’s up to culturally sensitive young Americans abroad, who may deny they are American because they believe they are being culturally sensitive, to actually come forward as Americans because it’s the more culturally sensitive, and beneficial, thing to do:

It’s precisely because of the Ugly American stigma that culturally sensitive students from the United States need to stand up and be counted. Americans aren’t all ignorant, aggressive, and badly dressed, but the stereotypes will stand unchallenged if Canada gets the credit for our better-behaved students.

More important, the lie short-circuits the primary purpose of study abroad: intellectual and personal growth. Many people who criticize America don’t assume they’ve stated an unassailable position; they’re opening what they hope will be a lively conversation. While engaging with people who simply want to vent against the United States is unwise, too often American students confuse “arguing” with “fighting” and miss the chance for precisely the sort of intellectual stimulation we want them to experience. And assuming that “foreigners don’t like Americans” or “foreigners will think I’m a warmonger” is patronizing.

So is that what’s been happening all these years? Canada has the good reputation and the U.S. doesn’t because the well-behaved Americans are shuffling all the credit to Canada? Smart also points out an interesting psychological aspect of why American students abroad may choose to lie:

Many students who deny being American have caught what used to be called the Peace Corps Syndrome and is now described, according to the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, as “reversal.” A bit of travel and education reveals to students that their home countries aren’t perfect. Thus, once-patriotic American students simply reshuffle the hierarchy, moving from “We’re number one!” to “America sucks!” — and then, sometimes, to “Yup, it’s cold in Edmonton!” Without denying some very ugly American history, training that eliminates hierarchical thinking and clarifies how all cultures are multifaceted and complex can help prevent this short-sighted response.

The whole point of travel and international experience is to expose yourself to the realities of the greater world, not to shield yourself from them—and an American saying he is Canadian does just that: shields him from the reality of what it means to be an American, in the context of the larger world as well as in relation to that particular country he is in and to that particular person he is talking to.

The whole article is available here, though available only to Chronicle subscribers.

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