I am an American. Up until about a week and a half ago, that simple statement was never really at the front of my mind, except for maybe on special patriotic occasions such as the Fourth of July. But ever since I arrived here in Leipzig, Germany last Monday, my identity as an American is something that I constantly find myself thinking about. Obviously when I open my mouth to speak, people are going to hear me speaking English in my American accent and know immediately that I’m not from here. But even when I’m not saying a word – whether I’m waiting at the tram stop or quietly perusing the aisles in the market – sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the people around me can tell. Even when I’m trying my best to blend into the European scene, sometimes it still feels as if I have a big marquee flashing over my head: “Hey everyone! She’s American! Look at her!”
I feel like Americans can definitely be perceived negatively, and that’s why I always try and make a conscious effort to not draw too much attention to myself as a foreigner. But old habits die hard, and sometimes it’s harder to blend in than you might think.
Some Europeans seem to have Americans pegged as being rather loud, obnoxious and belligerent, and I’ve seen this stereotype play out on several occasions since we’ve been here in Germany. One example that immediately comes to mind took place on the second or third night we were here, when our study abroad group met up with another group from OU that is also here in Leipzig and went to a biergarten for dinner. There we were, two long picnic tables jam-packed with about thirty Americans, all of whom had had at least one beer. We were talking and laughing and having a great time, but when I got up to throw my trash away I couldn’t help but notice something – all the locals at the surrounding tables were being relatively quiet even as they talked amongst themselves. Suddenly I glanced back at the tables where my group was sitting and almost cringed as I realized how loud we were in comparison to the Germans. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were judging us: “Wow, those Americans are so rude and annoying.” I didn’t think anything of the way we were acting – it seemed perfectly normal to me for a group of friends to be kind of loud at an outdoor gathering like that – but suddenly I realized that in this culture, things like this might be different. Maybe here, people simply like to enjoy each other’s company rather than having everyone shouting over one another as half a dozen conversations are going on at once.
But while I’ve unfortunately noticed that we Americans sometimes seem to give truth to the negative stereotypes Europeans hold against us, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the opposite is true when it comes to American stereotypes of Germans and Europeans and general. Before coming here, I tried to keep an open mind, but I’d heard it said that supposedly Europeans are “rude” and “snobby.” I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t worry me a bit, but thankfully I’ve found the opposite to be true. Nearly everyone I’ve interacted with here has been extremely pleasant and friendly, and even those who don’t speak English well will still try and make a conscious effort to help you out as best as they can (usually with a lot of pointing and pantomiming, but just the fact that they try is great enough). Those who DO speak English – usually the younger generations; older Germans were required to learn Russian rather than English in school – are usually so happy and excited to be able to practice their second language. For my first time being overseas, I’m definitely glad that I chose to study in a city where just about anyone is willing to lend a helping hand.
I’ll be here in Leipzig for about two more weeks, and I can’t wait to keep meeting people and learning new things about German culture. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to downplay my American identity as much as I can – but that doesn’t mean it won’t constantly be on my mind whenever I’m in public, just as it has been all along.