Isolated America-Why students should study abroad

Now that I am halfway through my year here in England, I have to admit that I am not going to live out that dream. Much to my own disappointment, I have become one of those annoying people we all know who went abroad and loved it, and can’t imagine passing up the opportunity. My little column this week is about some of the primary reasons I made this decision.

One of the first things that surprised me about Europeans is how little they seem to care about work. Four weeks of paid vacation is the bare minimum here, and I think that is required by law. You wonder why they need such vacations, because nobody seems to spend substantial time at work anyway. On any given weekday you will see plenty of suit-clad men heading to work as late as 10:30 or so. A couple of hours later, if you happen to be in a pub, you will see the very same men taking blissfully extended and idyllic lunch breaks, helping themselves to generous portions of both conversation and beer. They presumably get back to work some time in the afternoon, but many of them are back on the streets by 4:30, either on their way home or, more often, back to the pub. And much to the chagrin of a sad pedant like me, librarians are not immune to these leisurely tendencies either. I was shocked to learn that you cannot study in an Oxford University Library on Sundays of all days, since all of them are closed. As someone explained to me, they could never find librarians willing to work over their weekends. But once I got beyond the inconvenience of having to study in my room on the weekends, or not being able to get coffee at Starbucks after 7:00 p.m., I began to develop affection for a culture that allows relaxation to rank above vocation. Before I knew it, I was enjoying relaxation in a way I would be ashamed of in the States. I found myself taking the entire day off from school work, sometimes for two or three days in a row. This would be unthinkable for me at Amherst.

Another thing I came to appreciate was the novel experience of being an outsider. Many Americans who come here frantically attempt to blend in with the Brits by lowering their voices in public places, buying new clothes and doing whatever they can to learn the slang. From what I can tell, however, such attempts are futile. It is fairly easy to learn that fries are “chips,” and that “I’m bloody knackered” means “I’m very tired,” but there are always going to be phrases that catch you off-guard. Who could know, for example, that “getting pulled” is a common phrase for hooking up, used by girls and boys alike, or that the word “quite” means the exact opposite of what it does in America or that coffee shop employees often have no idea what you are talking about when you ask for something “to go”? (It is always “to take away,” never “to go.”)

Even the subtlest sartorial differences can be dead giveaways of American citizenship. The leader of an anti-war-in-Iraq protest that was being held on a crowded street recognized that a friend of mine was American by the shoes he wore and singled him out to defend George Bush’s war policy. No matter how hard you try, British people can tell you are American. This can often be a hassle: America is not exactly the most popular country among many Europeans right now, and as my last anecdote reveals, you can expect to get some flak for your nationality. But this can be valuable, too, and not just because you are forced to educate yourself about American foreign policy in order to either defend it or agree with criticism of it. The experience of being an outsider and encountering first hand how the rest of the world perceives Americans gives you a much better sense of what distinguishes America from the rest of the world but also about what it means to be American. It is difficult to appreciate what your culture has to offer, and what it lacks until you have experienced something else. I didn’t even go to a dramatically different place from the States, and I can grasp that. I’m afraid the study abroad people were right about all that stuff after all.

Another element of the experience I have appreciated is simply being in a place where people follow what is going on in the world outside their national borders. Having been the recipient of much America-bashing myself, once a Brit yelled “F–king Yankee!” at me as I exited a pub, I don’t mean to bash America now. But unlike CNN, TV news in the UK generally covers things that, well, matter. You don’t see as many tips on healthcare and celebrity-gossip qualifying as news in England. And the populace is more well-informed about world events in general. If I were to ask Americans what the significance of the word Dunblane is-perhaps I am being presumptuous-but I doubt many could tell me. (It is a Scottish town never to be forgotten in the UK, as it was there that a man entered a pre-school one day in 1996 and shot a class of sixteen four- and five-year olds to death.) By contrast, as a friend from Scotland once explained to me, if you ask average British citizens what the significance of the words Columbine or Waco are, they would generally be able to tell you. Furthermore, I’d wager that many London cab drivers, who often listen to the BBC News incessantly, know considerably more about world events than many mid-western American journalists do.

Perhaps I am being unfair: many would point out, and they would surely be correct, that post-Sept. 11, we Americans have been following and discussing world events much more than we were before. But there is still a disturbing level of ignorance: simply look at the frighteningly large percentage of Americans who are under the impression that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the events of Sept. 11. And outside the realm of the war on terror, American unawareness hardly seems any better than it was before. I am reminded of an extreme example I encountered at a meeting I attended last fall, where some of my fellow American exchange students and I were given the chance to talk to three members of Parliament. The discussion was going along fine until the jaw-droppingly embarrassing moment when an American girl I know (this is someone who studies at Oxford, mind you) asked the distinguished MPs, “So what’s the IRA?” It has been refreshing to immerse myself in a country where insularity simply doesn’t become so extreme.

So to all those freshmen who haven’t given a thought to studying abroad, and all those sophomores who waver about whether they should, I say: just do it. You only live once. And believe me, as charming and idyllic as Amherst, Mass. may be, there are far more exciting and interesting places to be explored on this planet. And in a world as tightly interconnected as globalization and terrorism have made it, it seems to me that studying abroad has become especially valuable. England may be an island in the physical sense, but if we are judging by national mindset, it is America that is the real island. It is time that America stopped producing people who don’t know what the IRA is. Yes, we can learn about the world by reading The New York Times, or even The Indicator. But whether you spend part of your junior year on the beaches of Spain or inside the libraries of Oxford, there is no substitution for venturing out and seeing it for yourself.