View from abroad: Students seen as U.S. Ambassadors

I had four pieces of shrimp in my hair. There may have been more caught in the strands that loosely danced around my face, but I wasn’t busy counting exactly how many chunks of seafood had been tossed my way. Rather, I gathered all my willpower to keep myself from jumping out of my white lawn chair-turned restaurant seat and strangling the man sitting at the next table.

His leathery face was made more unattractive by the fact that his skin had burnt a bright pink and he was barely conscious; this man was Exhibit ‘A’ of what I would later learn to be the "island tourists." It’s a phrase coined by the locals, and isn’t meant to be complimentary. Usually donning fluorescent colored clothing, of a floral print belonging only in nature; these people are visiting from either Western Europe or the United States, spending their ‘holidays’ on an island they consider exotic. Perhaps the travelers aim to become cultured and break beyond their routine lives, or they’re underage college students seeking a good time and some cheap alcohol.

Along with him was a second man, who was so far inebriated that he had become unconscious in his chair; a woman who was having trouble making her fists full of fries meet her mouth; and a second woman who could have been used as a cautionary tale for what tanning will do to one’s skin. What set this apparently drunken man apart from the other tourists was his refusal to pay his bar tab, punctuated by a loud ruckus and the food fight.

One important item the study abroad guidebook had made sure to mention-not one or twice, but almost at every page turn-was to remind us that as college students studying in a foreign country, we served as "ambassadors" of not only our respective universities, but as citizens of the United States. When Cypriots, both the students and natives living here, look at our behavior it would not only portray the American college personas of our group but could also influence the treatment of future American students studying abroad. Our group of over fifty students agreed to keep our level of rowdiness to a minimum, at least so it wouldn’t be evident that the source of trouble was the American students. However, precisely at the moment when the angry, sunburned, drunk European man threw his food at me-for no apparent reason other than I was in his line of sight-I realized that even the wildest night of partying by American students did not compare to the level of disrespect portrayed by this brute.

It’s true the restaurant was along the harbor of Limassol (a port city in southern Cyprus), therefore his being shirtless was acceptable. However once he began flinging food from his plate at others along the harbor, hurling the plastic chairs into the water, and generally creating a mess, his actions prompted the arrival of the restaurant manager.

"What are you doing? Get out of here, you monster!" the Greek man yelled in English as the brute lunged at him, the overly tanned woman struggling to hold him back. The party finally left the scene with furniture overturned, remnants of food scattered, and the bill unpaid, but not before the first man spit at the restaurant owner.

In between the owner’s mutterings in Greek, I caught a "next time, I throw HIM in water!" before he turned to our group of eight American students, watching the scene that had just played out. A large smile appeared on his face as he came to our table, repeating, "You enjoy your food? You are very nice kids!" In the eyes of this Cypriot citizen, at least, we were a reminder of the positive side to tourists.

As I write this, I look at the calendar to find our program is already halfway completed, and thankfully, my study abroad group has yet to wreak havoc upon Cyprus comparable to the adult tourists we witnessed a few days ago. While I won’t make the assumption that my group won’t commit some embarrassing act during the remainder of the semester, I know our status as representatives of the American people will have an influence on our actions here. Studying in Cyprus is as much exposing ourselves to a new culture as it is exposing the American image to others; it’s simply a matter of what image we choose to reveal.

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