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American or Not?
by Stefka Gerova

Language is a strange and funny thing sometimes. It fails to follow logic, and human beings, as more or less logical species, are prone to linguistic gaps and mistakes when communicating in another language. But there are errors that even native speakers make and here's one of them!

When you go to Asia, you naturally meet Asians, often leaving out any further specifications of country and region (and if not asked, no one else will know whether you've met Koreans, Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese people). Similarly, when you go to Europe, you talk about Europeans, lumping together the French, the Germans, the Finns and the Dutch. You would expect that when you go to North America, you'll talk with North Americans, and while in South America, you'll see South Americans. But no! You go to the United States and you meet Americans! Upon being asked abroad, most U.S. citizens will proudly say, "I am American!" without caring that America is actually not a country, but a combination of two continents. (The world should consider itself lucky that Australia is both a state and a continent, and no confusion is possible there!)

This funny phenomenon can be encountered only in the United States, and meanwhile other nationalities are getting deeply offended. If you have friends from Brazil, Chile, Peru, Panama and even neighboring Mexico, they will inevitably exclaim angrily, "We're all Americans, we come from the Americas!" Try to tell them that only U.S. citizens are Americans, and you've already gotten yourself into a big trouble!

U.S. ethnocentricity only gets worse because the United States is THE country constantly trying to be "politically correct" and not offend others based on nationality or origin. Yet, the entire world knows about "the American dream," the idea that democracy and freedom should rule the world. By the way, this is an Ancient Greek ideal, but I still haven't heard about a similar "Greek dream"! And while we as international students study in the U.S., we all supposedly become "Americanized" by losing some of our national habits and adopting other foreign ones. Have you ever seen anyone become Africanized, Asianized or Europeanized?! Those would surely be rare species.

What's even more funny is the fact that if you open your U.S. Thesaurus and look up the word "American," it will automatically give you the meaning of "North American." Now, all of a sudden, it seems that the United States is equivalent to North America! Poor Canadians and Mexicans! If you attempt to look up the same word in another Thesaurus of the English language (be that Australian, Canadian, Jamaican or U.K. English), to your disappointment there won't be any explanation. The sole closest word you would find is "American history." Indeed, some recent travel publications have started using the more specific "U.S. American" to denote U.S. citizens, but this is mostly an attempt in vain since the majority of people are simply used to using the obscure word "American."

The United States is indeed home to thousands of international students, many of which come from South or North America and many of which are your own friends. They certainly would feel offended and betrayed if they are constantly getting stripped off of their continent-belonging, especially by fellow international students. The important point is that you need not make a tragedy out of the whole story, brighten it up with a joke whenever you hear generalizations like "Americans are such and such" or "Americans do this." I have friends who would always reply, "Oh, really, in which part of America do they do this?! Even the most patriotic citizen of the U.S. will laugh and slowly learn the lesson.

The most pitiful thing is that the majority of our U.S. friends have not even thought about the fact that a whole continent goes by the name America. The good news is that they will be willing to learn and hence become "less American" in the future. It's about the fifth time around that they say things like, "In America oops in the United States we do "! You don't believe it? Give it a shot!

Stefka Gerova is a Pomona College student from Bulgaria, majoring in International Relations. (She spends most of her spare time at International Place of the Claremont Colleges and enjoys escaping in the mountains whenever possible.) She is currently on a semester abroad program in Berlin, Germany.


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