My little brother's birthday is coming up, so I went on a mad shopping run yesterday, trying to find something to get for the little punk. He's turning fifteen, about to get his learner's permit. Being an ocean away, I can only pray for the well-being of my beloved '92 Volvo, which he will certainly bump, scratch, and otherwise maim in his quest to master the art of driving.
But I digress. I was shopping in one of the traditional touristy stores, full of London themed postcards, T-shirts, mugs, thongs, stickers, magnets, posters, movies, and *key chains*. Having found the perfect one -- not too lewd, not too dorky, not too expensive -- I proceeded to the small checkout counter at the back of the store. As I forked over my £1.50 ($3), the cashier asked me, "Are you French?" I raised one eyebrow and said, "No, American." To my most jubilant delight, he said, "Oh, you look European. How long have you been here?"
Our short conversation ended when the next customer came forward to purchase her own tacky souveneirs, but the pride of looking European stayed with me through my walk back to my apartment. Dressed in black ballet flats; dark blue, boot-cut jeans; black sweater; turquoise pashmina; and silver earrings, I wanted to skip down the sidewalk and shout out in a sing-song voice, "I look Eur-o-pe-an! I look Eur-o-pe-an!" Moreover: I look French! I could be an artist, a wine connoiseur, a pastry chef!
In general, looking natural and fitting in are laudable goals. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But fitting in can also serve as camoflauge, in an era when the United States is increasingly seen as a backwards, "politically underdeveloped" nation. Bush-bashing could compete with football for the title of favorite European sport. For those reasons, I was happy to learn that I didn't necessarily carry an aura of Americanness with me.
I fairly gloated all the way back home. But as I put the key into the lock of the front door, it hit me. Oh my gosh, was I not friendly enough? Why wasn't I friendly enough for him to assume I was an American? (As I'm learning in my Views of the U.S. class, Americans are famed for being generous -- if not genuine -- with their greetings, smiles, and small talk.)
My Americanness will definitely be a big topic to ponder over while I'm over here. Before leaving the country, I very rarely thought about the values and habits my American culture had instilled in me, aside from a penchant for gobbling McDonald's. I haven't come to any earth-shattering conclusions yet about what it means to be an American, but I'll let you know if I do.