Study Abroad and American Identity

Feb 20, 2015 12:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

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Matt Linenbroker is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2015, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A journalism and English major at the University of Missouri - School of Journalism, he is studying abroad in London this semester.

In his post below, Matt talks about what he's learned about his identity as an American since he's been studying abroad in London, and the differences between his home culture and host culture.

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I am fairly confident that I have seen more KFCs since I’ve been in London than I have in the prior year living in Missouri. Seriously, why are there so many? What’s the fascination? I was expecting the prevalence of McDonalds; it’s cheap, they’ve branded themselves well and become a notoriously international company. But KFC? I feel responsible, somehow, as an American, for inflicting it upon the world.

That’s one of the things I’ve discovered while abroad, how gentrified things are becoming, especially from American companies, and it makes me think twice about my American identity. Because I would much rather get fast food from a place called Brighton Fried Chicken while living in the UK, but instead I see as many KFCs as I would in Kentucky.

It’s one of the things that has made me question whether or not I am truly a foreigner here. Maybe England is really just the 51st state, and I’m truly at home. Will Smith movies in theatres, The Big Bang Theory on television, Burger King down the street, what makes this place different from Missouri?

Well, a lot, but I think it’s always good to look at every perspective possible when examining our fundamental make up. And I have discovered, despite KFC being a two-minute walk from my flat, there are some fundamental cultural differences Americans and the English.

Some are so starkly polarizing and vital to human understanding that we simply cannot ignore them.

Y’know, like Fifty Shades of Grey.

CAPAStudyAbroad_London_Spring2015_From_Matt_Linenbroker_-_50_shades

 

The professor for my British Culture and Life class, Richard Maguire, explained that Fifty Shades is going to be a lot more intense here because the English aren’t afraid of a little nudity and fornication. They can squeeze a lot more sex onto the big screen than Americans allow. But before you’re queuing up to see it in Imax, there is a drawback, or at least a tradeoff, and that’s how much violence can be broadcasted. For example, The Hunger Games, which, when you think about it, is a pretty brutal, barbaric movie about kids killing kids, showed a decent amount blood and gore in the States. But in England, the movie had to be chopped quite a bit – including how they portrayed the death of Rue, a 12-year-old girl killed on screen.

I think this is a great example of how while we make speak the same language, and are both first-world countries, we often have distinctly unique cultural styles. Some of the ads I see in the tube or in newspapers (particularly The Sun’s Page 3 girls, a long-running tradition of mainstream newspaper nudity) would absolutely never be allowed in the States, and how we as Americans may be more desensitized to everyday blood and violence. Is one better than the other? I’m not sure, and I’m also not sure they can be compared.

There are also, of course, smaller cultural conundrums that I’ve discovered since I’ve been abroad.

Apparently Americans smile a lot. I have actually had a person recognize me as American before I even opened my mouth, simply because I was smiling. Those who grew up on the east coast may not do this as much, but even though I thought I had made myself immune to Midwestern stereotypes, it seems smiling at strangers has been ingrained in me. During a pre-departure orientation, we warned, particularly the girls, to be careful of this, especially when out late at night – as a polite-smile-out-of-habit could indicate something not intended, and draw unwanted attention.

And, yes, we can be loud. Americans seem to have a penchant for raising our voices when we don’t particularly intend to. I noticed this first-hand when I went to meet some American friends at a pub one night, and upon entering, could immediately hear their voices cutting through the room. And I’m just as guilty of this as my friends, although I’m working on it.

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On a final note, once-again both concerned and fascinated by my ever-picky eating behavior, I’ve noticed that the lunch culture is quite different. Back in the states, I love Panera (or, as we call it, St. Louis Bread Company, because it originated in my home city, and that’s what it’s called there – this is quite a big point of contention at the University of Missouri). But at Panera, there is a lunch menu, and you can order anything you want, and have it customized as you see fit. But not in the quick-lunch places of London; at places like Eat, Pret a Manger, and Costa, the lunches, often take-away, are all pre-made, and can be either warmed up or eaten cold. So if there’s something on it that you don’t like, it can admittedly be a little tough.

But, have no fear picky-eaters, there is hope! Luckily, more and more of these places keep popping up (or, unluckily, too, as it is causing more gentrification in London), which means there are almost always more options. For example, I’ve discovered a less common café called Temptations, which has, as one of its options, a brie cheese, cranberry, pistachio and lettuce sandwich. Luckily, I like all of those things, so it’s become my at-work lunch go-to.

From Fifty Shades to a healthy sandwich, the cultural differences in London can both smack you in the face and slowly creep up on you. Even if KFC is just around the corner, the culture of London is quickly consuming me, making me question natural instincts and offering new and fascinating solutions, throwing me for loops and leaving me wandering. But as Tolkien so famously wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

London definitely has me wandering, and I don’t yet think I’m lost.

Thanks Matt!

Matt’s journey continues every Friday so stay tuned! 

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