Sending Alex Abroad: The Low Down and Tone Down on Stereotypes of American Teens

In this series, Aspire by API’s very own Jill Denton writes about preparing for this summer’s Salamanca program from her unique perspective as a mom.

With 25% unemployment in Spain, the weight of the current European financial crisis, as well as safety concerns in general for teen U.S. travelers abroad, some parental coaching is required to inform Alex about stereotypes which some Europeans may have and the need for subtleness.

High School Study Abroad Summer Programs in Salamanca, Spain - Mom Blog

Getting ready to go

Some of the negative American stereotypes I am most weary of as a parent are listed below. Underneath each are specific ways in which I’m suggesting Alex can discern and respond to them, if she does in fact encounter them:

* Americans are disinterested in other cultures, and few know anything about anywhere outside the USA.

As you know the town you are visiting, Salamanca, was founded in 300 BC, but where you grew up, Austin, Texas, was founded around 1830 AD. Consider the relatively bountiful amount of history associated with Salamanca and respect it. Appreciate the wealth of storytelling associated with Salamanca’s long history. Consider that America is relatively young has some growing up to do in relation to its roles and responsibilities in the global community.

* Americans are a large group of people united by nothing but pure material interests and things.

There is something in all of us that fears the differences in others not like ourselves. There is also something in all of us that is attracted to uniqueness and novelty. Observe the happiness and lightheartedness of the Spanish people in general and observe their general level of material wealth. Ask yourself, do I have to have things to be happy?

* Americans are promiscuous.

Consider the way an American teen girl dresses and the way she is treated – is she treated differently depending on what she wears?

* Most Americans are rich. America is responsible for much of the financial crisis that exists in the world.

Don’t take everything people say or think about the U.S. personally.  When someone makes a generalization about the U.S., they aren’t making a comment about you specifically.  It’s okay to disassociate from the big misconception called “America.” It’s big and untouchable.  Sometimes it’s ugly and hard to comprehend. But you, you are a warm and friendly individual. Keep discussions light. Listen to the concerns of the world and know that everyone is responsible.

* Most Americans are loud and obnoxious.

Do you see other American teens in Spain being loud and obnoxious? 

High School Study Abroad Summer Programs in Salamanca, Spain - Mom Blog

At the airport

Here are some suggestions I offered to Alex to remain American without reinforcing any of the negative stereotypes mentioned above:

1. Dress a little nicer than you would normally, but be yourself, in an understated way.  Leave the warm up pants, tee shirts and short shorts at home. Wear slightly more muted colors.

2. Be discrete when taking photos.  We all want photos but consider that all the shots of this church and that statue won’t have you in the photos. Plus when you return home, you will have a ton of photos that look like one another, you won’t remember which church is which, and you realize you spent all your time taking photos that look like cheap travel brochure photos.

3. Different isn’t weird. Manners, mannerisms, courtesies, eating habits, and ways of socializing change everywhere you travel.  Get used to the idea that your way isn’t always the right or only way.

4. Silence and alert listening is sometimes more valuable more than talking. Breathe, observe, sit somewhere and just be alert to they way the natives interact. Smile and be friendly in your expressions. The verbal interaction will happen eventually.

5. Eat and drink when and how the locals do.  Part of syncing to the rhythms of a different culture is simply timing your daily routines the same as the locals. In the case of Spain, people eat lunch and dinner later than they do in the U.S.  As basic and small as this may seem, it may be the first step toward embracing the culture which you are studying.

6. Learn the language and customs.   The wonderful thing about being a part of a study abroad program like Aspire by API is that you are actively learning the language and customs. This means you are already taking advantage of the greatest opportunity to overturn American stereotypes by attempting to communicate in the local language, and behaving in a way which implies that you understand and  are mindful of the host country’s customs.

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