VIEW FROM ABROAD: ‘American’ label tough to shake

I have found during the past few months of living in Nicosia that to be "American" is to be something special to the locals. While a bit of an exaggeration, the overwhelming feelings of being trapped in a cage or placed on a pedestal are precisely what I faced when I stated I was an exchange student from the United States. From my first days of arriving in Cyprus, the label of "American" is not easily shrugged off.

A glaring example comes from one day during Greek class, as the girl sitting in front of me turned around to ask in earnest, "are you really from America?" At that point, I thought she either wasn’t certain because I am South Asian or if her disbelief stemmed from something else. Her wide eyes filled with amazement when I nodded and the questions she rattled off in succession were proof her curiosity was geared toward the "American" factor.

Raised in the northern occupied territory of Cyprus until her teenage years, she had moved to Nicosia to attend university, obtain her degree and, ultimately, go to the U.S. to find work. She had bought into the message that the U.S. was indeed a land of opportunity, with no poverty and class divisions and a quick solution to the financial crisis hitting the global economy because "America is the best country in the world." To her and hundreds of others, our country is literally an image of perfection.

While traveling through Athens and Rome the situation was quite the opposite. We were told by our program coordinators to avoid appearing "American" as much as possible – one is 10 times more likely to be robbed or mugged if the image presented is of a wealthy tourist.

While in the Athenian flea market, those of us who attempted to bargain with the sellers faced difficulty; those of us who thought we had gotten a good price for an item were laughed at by the sellers when our backs were turned. In one country, our nationality gave our group specialty status, while in another we were gullible juveniles.

What I find to be quite humorous in these situations is when introducing myself, if I allow the person to assume I am simply an international student from India, I receive a different set of expectations and an air of normalcy that is otherwise missing when I am perceived to be the "American." At times, I am unsure as to which side of me comes across more positively to Cypriots, the American or the Indian. As an American student, I am repeatedly asked why I chose to leave such a wonderful country; as an Indian student, I am expected to have the desire to end up in the U.S.

A week ago, I wrote about the importance of study-abroad students portraying themselves as positive ambassadors of our home country; today, I am coming to the realization that the image the rest of the world has already chosen to associate with the U.S. is one we have limited influence over. For the Cypriots, greener pastures and a perfect world are to be found in America.

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