‘Hey, only I can diss the US!’ and other thoughts from studying abroad

hannah-nguyen-shanghai2
Hannah Nguyen/Staff

An American, a Swede, an Australian, a Canadian and about three dozen other students of varying nationalities walk into a classroom.

Everyone is dripping with sweat from the 98-degree heat outside as we all file in, but the air conditioning blasting in the classroom offers refreshing relief. We all take our seats, and the instructor of our course, which is called “China’s International Communications,” begins his lecture promptly at 8:55 a.m.

I immediately notice the ways in which the pedagogy in this class differs from the classes I’ve taken in Berkeley — the instructor articulates when he is stating a personal opinion, discussions are reserved for allotted points throughout the presentation rather than scattered throughout and rhetorical questions are frequently posed with little to no follow-up, forcing students to decide whether or not the answer is worth pursuing.

The content of the course is centered on Chinese media in the context of globalization, a topic I found particularly compelling given the current dynamics between the United States and China. And I should have known that it would only be a matter of time before a picture of President Donald Trump would show up in the lecture slides.

After about 15 minutes, it appears. The professor had started talking about the ways in which the world was actually starting to de-globalize, and I knew it was coming. The orange, shriveled face, with the caption “America First” underneath, glared down at us, and several of my classmates sneered and giggled at the slide. “Yup, that’s America,” one student smirked, and several others laughed along.

I scanned the room and noticed that the students who were laughing at this man do not call him their president. They were students from Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia and several other countries, and I felt the sudden urge to stand up and defend my country. “No, that’s not America,” I wanted to say. “We are so much more than that.” I felt helpless realizing what a joke America and our presidential administration is to the rest of the world.

During a break, I connected with other American students in the class and shared with them my frustrations. To my great relief, they related. They agreed that even though we all have done our fair share of Trump-bashing, it somehow feels personal when people from other countries do it. We know all about America’s problems, but having other people use them as the punchline of a joke sparks a weird, convoluted patriotism and desire to defend ourselves, as individuals who didn’t vote to put Trump in office. I have no problem criticizing America for its many faults, but yet feel defensive when others do.

But while I felt the need to justify Americans to the rest of my classmates, this was a powerful moment for me. I started to understand how coming from a country as influential as America endows you with a great amount of responsibility, not just to other Americans but to the rest of the world as well. What our country says and does matters, not just to us but to many people from many places. Others’ perceptions of us should help guide us on the right path, even if it wounds our Yankee pride.

They say studying abroad is a great experience because it broadens your worldview. But I’ve come to find that the most powerful part about taking classes abroad is that I am forced to see the worldviews of others. The more I interact with people from different backgrounds, the more these worldviews actually start to overlap and the more I realize we’re less different than I thought.

Contact Hannah Nguyen at [email protected].