I spent my undergraduate years at Georgetown University focusing on all things NOT U.S.A. I even avoided U.S. foreign policy as a subject, preferring to learn entirely about the cultures, histories, traditions, governments, and languages of other countries (I learned other stuff too, I guess – #thanksliberalartsdegree). How, then, did I end up with job that expects me to serve as “a representative of the people, cultures, values, and traditions of the United States of America,” Core Expectation #9 of Peace Corps service?
My host family laughed at me when I told them I have never seen Star Wars, but they were stunned speechless when I mentioned I hadn’t ever seen Home Alone. Students in my English club were disappointed when I didn’t know the 28th president off the top of my head (granted, I would have known the 26th – holla, Theodore Roosevelt). Every time I say we don’t have a national dish, per se, in the U.S., Kyrgyz people frown at me. By these metrics, I fail at being an American. My department director must have overlooked my patriotic inadequacies when she assigned my counterpart Gulbara and me a class called “Culture and Education of America.”
On the first day of this class, I started with an activity to gauge what my students know (or think they know) about the U.S. and what they would like to learn from me. Their responses offered a fascinating look into the way people here perceive the United States:
What do you already know about American culture or education?
“I know there many nationalities.”
“America is very popular country all over the world”
“I know that in America is a large country and have more beautiful cities. I like London Bridge.”
“There are 4 meals every day in America, They read book newspaper every day”
“I know, that… every American are kind heart for they husband’s and friends”
“I know that the best universities are in America & students get best education there”
“American people celebrate many holidays they are: Halloween, Thaanks giving day, Christmas, Independence Day, New Year”
After clarifying that the London Bridge is not, in fact, in America and that Americans have a wide range of reading and eating habits – we moved on to my students’ questions about the U.S.:
What do you want to know about American culture or education?
“How many holidays in USA?”
“I want to know about Hallowen”
“I want to know how celebrate New Year?”
“How celebrate Halloween in USA?”
“How is Halloween?”
“What are you say about American wedding day?”
“I want to know Americans’ national meals”
“I want to know Americans’ character”
So, clearly people are curious about holidays. Especially Halloween! Who would have thought? (Apparently the two big universities in Jalal-Abad have competing Halloween parties every year; now that volunteers have been placed at both universities, maybe we can plan a joint Monster Mash Bash? Commence the plotting…) Festivities and holidays aside, it’s the last question that freaks me out a little bit.
For almost every student I’ve talked to, I am the first American they have ever met – and may be the only one they will meet for a long time. It’s a heavy weight on my shoulders to know that every tidbit of American culture, every aspect of American culture I try to share with my students will be taken as the absolute truth. I hate generalizing, and in the first few lectures I’ve tried to skirt around bold, declarative statements like: “Americans do it this way. This is the American way. This is American culture.” From talking to Kyrgyz people, though, it seems they are a lot more comfortable making such statements about their own culture: “These are the Kyrgyz national foods. This is how Kyrgyz people act. It is Kyrgyz tradition to do it this way.”
To counteract this, I’ve taught every group of classes the word diversity, and in every subsequent class I’ve asked students to remember the definition. I’ve asked them to think about the U.S. as a diverse place, where there are all kinds of people, and remember that I am just one person. Whether or not they totally accept this, I don’t know, BUT I’ll continue to do what I can to explain my understanding of my country and the people who live there.
With all that said, I’ve got to admit that there’s one thing I’ve been okay with generalizing: Midwestern-isms. I taught my English club today that tater tot hotdish and cheese curds are “American national dishes,” and I told them they should say “pop” instead of “soda” to be better understood. Nothing like Midwestern cultural domination to make a PCV’s day!