I’ve heard that studying abroad changes one’s relationship to their native culture and home country. But I didn’t expect for that to be such a prominent part of my experience in Chile. My relationships to the United States and to my own identity as being from that country have shifted significantly during my first experience living in another country.
For instance, I’ve been irritated for years by the fact that the English language doesn’t have an adjective signifying “from the United States of America” that could not also be interpreted to mean “from any part of North or South America.” Over time, the usage of the word “American” for that purpose seemed more and more acceptable to me (as in American values, American cinema, American military, American imperialism, etc.) Over time, I accepted that the alternatives I thought more appropriate (the most promising among them the noun “United Stater”) were extremely unlikely to be accepted into common use, and all but forgot about the matter.
In Spanish 201, I learned a Spanish word that distinguishes between U.S. American and the more general meaning of American: “estadounidense,” which comes from the name of the USA in Spanish: “Estados Unidos de América.” The cognate “americano” is understood as referencing the United States in most contexts, but I made the deliberate choice to use “estadounidense” to refer to my national identity while in Chile. Especially after talking to some Chileans about the subject, it seems inaccurate and disrespectful to speak in such a way that claims the only Americans (o americanos, si se habla español) are those that come from the US.
This is one of many ways I’ve become more aware of the United States as a global influence—in many cases, a negative one. I’ve become uncomfortably aware of the aggressive exportation of US culture abroad: many fast food restaurants that originated in the US can now be found in the majority of nations in the world, along with the health problems their food tends to exacerbate. Holidays are another type of cultural icon US companies push on other parts of the world. My Chilean family doesn’t celebrate Halloween, but by their own account, they are among few that do not partake. When I listen to Chilean radio stations, I hear chart-toppers from the US just as often (if not slightly more) as music in Spanish.
The general trend seems to be that culture from the United States takes root elsewhere in the world because it can be bought and sold and someone (most likely a corporation from the US) makes a profit. For the first time, I can see firsthand how my home country affects the rest of the world, culturally and economically, and there are many negative aspects that can’t easily be seen from within our United States.
At the same time, I’ve become aware of positive aspects of my own culture and nation in ways I wasn’t before I traveled internationally. From the Chileans’ admiration for artists from the United States, especially those associated with the ’60s counterculture; or inventors from the US, like the Wright Brothers or Steve Jobs, I’ve gleaned a new image of my nation. As a country, we stand for diversity and innovation. Ours was the society that brought the world the electric guitar, the Internet, and sent human beings to the Moon… I’ve reaffirmed the US-American values I do identify with, even as I critique other aspects of my country’s legacy.
I know I’ll return from Chile with a different answer to the question, “What does it mean to be from the United States?” as well as to the question “What does it mean to be an American?”
For the first time, I think of those as two separate identities.