Indiana University Overseas Study

Marie Kalas - Valparaiso

American cuisine, American citizens, American media, American this and American that.

I’ve discovered my least favorite word since arriving to South America four months ago. Almost every day, I have the conversation with someone about why I hate the word “American.” We have Miss America, the American Dream, American hamburgers, and the American family. According to the ever-so-accurate Wikipedia, there are 55 countries in the Americas. If that’s true, then why does “The American Dream” refer to only one country?

A lot of people in the US wonder why other countries hate us or at least have this massive stereotype that we’re all self-obsessed. Miss America answers just that. Yes, I’m American, but so is my Chilean family and my Brazilian friends and our Canadian neighbors. “De dónde eres?” [Where are you from?] “Soy de América.” [I’m from America.] Those three words give foreigners a valid reason to think we’re self-obsessed—because we are. Using that word that excludes something around 54 other countries from ever using it the way we do.

The number of times I’ve been yelled at when it slips in my Spanish is uncountable. “Extraño comida americana.” [I miss American food.] “Debemos tener un carrete americano!” [We should have an American party!] Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. What I miss is food from the United States, or what I want to have is a US party.

But it doesn’t really work that easy.

Just in that phrase, “I want to have a US party,” we all cringe because it doesn’t sound quite right. A United Statesian party? A United States of American party? Gross. Doesn’t work. That’s because our word for United Statesian is American. So although I hate myself for using that word to describe things, I have to—in English, that is.

In Spanish, they have a word meaning United Statesian—estadounidense. So when I speak Spanish, there’s no excuse to mess up “American food.” However, when I’m speaking English, I have no choice but to use that word. So I guess we have a reasonable excuse why there are things like the American Dream or American hamburgers. However, we don’t have a valid excuse when people ask where we are from. American as an adjective works in English. America as a noun doesn’t.

I’ve definitely become extraordinarily aware of that word since arriving here. Whenever I listen to political debates where the politician says, “Americans need to blah blah blah,” I lose a little respect for them. But how can I lose respect for them when that’s just the way we speak English? People from countries outside of the Americas call us Americans because they don’t usually have a personal tie to the Americas. People from the Americas, outside of the US, never refer to us as Americans. In fact, when we refer to ourselves as Americans, you can bet your bottom dollar, or Chilean peso, they’re going to try to leave that conversation with you as soon as they get the chance.

When I went to IU my first semester freshman year, I grew this tremendous pride for being from Chicago. It was something I held in high esteem, something I was proud of. Coming to Chile, I don’t have that same pride of coming from the United States. Of course of course of course I feel blessed to live in such a prosperous country and have a wonderful, safe, stable life, but after coming here, I’ve realized those “American” stereotypes can be so real—even in myself.

The stereotype that we’re self-obsessed we already decided has some truth just due to our vocabulary. The stereotype that we’re all lazy and obese isn’t that far off since 1 out of 3 of us are considered obese. Of course this percentage doesn’t track our laziness, and a lot of obesity is due to medical conditions, however, the amount of fast food choices we have or the amount of sodas or the amount of chips and candy and crackers and cheese and all of that is directly related to the statistic. Whenever I walk past this McDonald’s in Viña del Mar, I can always find at least one group of people from the US sitting there.

McDonalds in Valparaiso

Glancing again at Wikipedia, the list of negative stereotypes perceived by other countries about the United States consists of “materialism, lack of cultural awareness, racism, ‘gun-loving,’ arrogant, etc.” I don’t need to go through every one of these stereotypes and prove the truth that can be found in all of these because I think we can all admit there is at least a sprinkle of reality in every one of these stereotypes.

Obviously the United States has a lot of problems just like any other country, and I think the reason we have so many of these negative stereotypes against us is because we’re constantly in the news, media, and any other form of conversation. I believe that you haven’t really reached success until you have a good percentage of haters, but it just kind of sucks when those haters have bits of truth. And even with all of these horrible stereotypes, we have things like the American Dream, so obviously we’re doing something right. I mean come on, we live in the coolest country in the world. We have our own hashtag. #Merica

America, the United States, the grand ole US of A is a place I love, a place I call home, and a place I am excited to return to. But I think if I hadn’t left, I would have never realized all the things we can do and should do to change our ways. We have so much to learn from other countries, and if our generation is going to make any sort of a difference in the way things are working right now, studying abroad is an absolute must. To take advantage of this opportunity of affordable travel is one of the greatest opportunities we will ever have in our lifetime, and I truly believe that if we all opened our eyes to other cultures and the views of our own culture from other people, we wouldn’t have someone running for president who fits every single negative stereotype Wikipedia lists.

Marie Kalas - immersing herself in Chilean language and community

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