As the plane began its descent, I peered over from the aisle seat and caught a glimpse of immense, square pastures outlined by occasional trees. My inner being told me to hold myself back and not completely geek out, for risk of creeping out the teenage guy beside me. He seemed calm about the fact that we were arriving in England; I could tell he was a native. Then why couldn’t I have gotten the window seat?
Through Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, I applied for a two-week academic program overseas to the one place in the world that I’d fantasized about ever since I’d watched Pirates of the Caribbean: England. The law class sounded the most British out of all the others, so naturally I signed up for it.
I could spend forever giving you every minute detail of the trip: the airport, our baggage that didn’t show up until two days later, the merry Dutch flight attendant in the light blue uniform, or the feeling you get when you first step on non-American ground. Maybe I could go into a long narrative about every little quirk that the British have: the fact that they don’t have s’mores, their excessive tea drinking, or these decadent little creations called “cake bars” (which I can sufficiently thank for those few extra pounds I gained). But I’m afraid that would take up a novel, and in the end you may only benefit from knowing what it’s like to travel for hours on end, or that the “bathroom” is commonly referred to as the “toilet.” No, that is an entirely different type of lesson, which is still highly interesting, but not the most important. In fact, the remarkable experience from this trip was seeing America through different eyes.
In law class, I had to be quick-witted at all times, because I was constantly hounded with questions of all sorts: How would the American government handle this situation? There are 52 states, aren’t there? And my favorite: Can you say “tomato” for me? (I got a lot of giggles from them.) I was embarrassed to find that I hardly knew the answers to these questions: I racked my brain to remember if the Bill of Rights came before or after the Constitution.
We held a lot of debates in class, and from these I heard many opinions of my British classmates. I sensed that they thought of President Bush as, ultimately, a man that only made matters worse with war. There was a long discussion about Guantanamo Bay. I remember hearing about pacts or moral laws that the United States might’ve broken, and the controversial law in Britain that banned fox hunting. My perception of America dramatically changed based on the aura of the class: the United States, with its long, tentacle-like fingers, trying to grab other countries. I saw in my mind’s eye an obnoxious man, with guns and tricky little plans.
Whatever I didn’t hear, I saw. The first cultural difference I noticed when I got off the plane was the size of the sodas in the vending machine; they were quite small. After a while I looked around and began to realize that I wasn’t even seeing half as many obese people as I do back at home. During meals, I noticed that most people had better eating habits than my friends; nobody ate “just” a side of fries, or nibbled on some salad. My image of America was now an obese man whose buttons were popping out of his business suit.
Another observance was that the style of music and dress appeared to be of the indie rock genre. Even some of the boys dressed fashionably well, with collared shirts, tight fitting jeans, and styled hair. At the dance, the music didn’t consist of many rap songs, but quality dance songs. Again, my mental picture of America became more risque, as I remembered the bump and grind of the usual dances back at home.
Upon returning home, I was depressed to leave everything British behind. When the plane touched ground in New York, I was a bit bewildered; I had never thought much about the life I live from the perspective of an outsider. I’ve learned to take into account the way that other countries view America. Most significantly, I’ve discovered that traveling to another country has allowed me to acknowledge parts of my heritage and lifestyle that I’ve always overlooked.
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