Navigating Your Own Identity Abroad

Just as eager as you will be to learn about the citizens of your host country, they will be eager to learn about you.  And just as you have stereotypes and expectations of your host country, you’ll bear the burden of similar stereotypes and expectations.  In this section, we’ll refer to “Americans,” that is to say students from the U.S., but you can certainly insert any other nationality in its place.    
By traveling abroad as an American you are more than a student studying abroad for a semester. You are the face of America and may be the first the point of contact with American culture for a foreign citizen.  This is an immense responsibility that requires sensitivity and tact on your part. 
Keep in mind that topic like politics, geography, pop-culture, world events, crime, etc. will come up and people will be interested in what you have to say.  Additionally, regardless of your political beliefs or ability to change global politics, people may address you as if you were personally responsible for political decisions made by our government.  This is part of being an American citizen abroad, and though you may not feel like must defend every choice our celebrities or government makes, being able to articulate to others how our system of government works or why something is culturally relevant will be a useful skill to develop.   
Americans often do not have command of a second or third language, unlike our European counterparts.  Additionally, Americans generally have a poor ear for identifying languages and (in English) accents.  If you are in a country where English is not widely spoken, you may find yourself in uncomfortable positions of feeling lost or overwhelmed.  Never fear, this is where life skills and personal growth develop.  Everyone who’s been abroad for a long period undoubtedly returns home with stories of having to pantomime their requests at grocery stores or explain an idea or concept repeatedly to their host family in varying vocabulary.   
Don’t be surprised if locals in your new country will be able to immediately identify you as an American even before they hear you speak.  There are loads of telltale signs of Americans abroad.  Though you may not have an eye for spotting your fellow Americans right away, by the end of your time in your host country you too will be able to pick you fellow countrymen out of a crowd! 

Heritage students  

Our experience is that heritage students often expect to be embraced by the host culture because they “look like” locals, i.e. an African-American student studying in Senegal or a Chinese-American student in China. People and their cultures are complex and locals are likely to see these students as Americans first, regardless of superficial appearance. They may look similar, but locals’ history and experience are likely to be very different from that of the American students whose stay in the host culture is finite.