Teaching abroad in China and traveling around Asia, I've had some pretty interesting conversations with co-workers and students about American stereotypes. After living in Asia for a few years, I tend to see the same questions and comments pop up again and again.
While it can get old after awhile to constantly confront stereotypes about your home country, I always try to take the time to dispel the many myths about America.
View yourself as a cultural ambassador, and hopefully when you depart you'll have left your co-workers and students with more than just English language skills.
One of the most positive things you can leave behind after a year of teaching abroad is increased knowledge about American culture and life in the U.S. When teaching abroad, cross-cultural learning can go both ways. You can teach your colleagues and students about life in America, while they can show you the customs and culture of the country you're living in.
While teaching in Asia, try to view yourself as a cultural ambassador, and hopefully when you depart you'll have left your co-workers and students with more than just English language skills.
1. "If You're from America... Then Why Are You Black?"
Most people in Asia don't realize that America is a nation of immigrants and only 60% caucasian. It doesn't help that the majority of Americans who go to teach abroad are also white. Many of my black and Asian friends found it difficult to convince their students and the locals that yes, they're actually American.
Many people in Asia believe that anyone who is black is automatically from Africa. However, this is slightly at odds with the fact that everyone also knows that president Obama is black. The main things people know about African American culture is what has been perpetuated by the American media: rap videos, violence, and the NBA.
Unfortunately, this means that people have many stereotypes about African Americans. Whether it's calling a girl's afro "explosion hair" or insisting my tall friend must play basketball, many African Americans have to work overtime to dispel stereotypes they may not be used to confronting in such a straight-froward manner.
Equally frustrating, many Asian Americans blend in too easily, and are expected to speak the local language fluently. In China, many people have refused to believe that my Japanese-American and Vietnamese-American friends are not Chinese, even though they don't look even remotely Chinese. If you're ethnically Chinese, expect to be met with accusatory questions about your lack of fluency.
One large issue with teaching English as a minority in Asia is that it's much harder to get a job if you're not white. While this is a horribly racist practice, many people believe that white teachers are more "prestigious" and will help attract new students to the school. Not only do schools want native English speakers, they want teachers who look like native English speakers in their eyes. For them, this means a white person.
Fortunately, many schools are changing this practice. Hopefully, the more non-white English speakers that come to Asia to teach, the faster these beliefs will change.
2. Do You Have a Gun?
America is famous around the world for its culture of guns and -- compared to the rest of the world -- lax gun laws. Many of my students and co-workers wanted to know if I had a gun, and I how I protect myself without one.
What do you do if someone shoots at you? How do you protect yourself if someone holds a gun at you? I even had multiple students tell me that if they lived in America, they would buy guns to protect themselves from "bad guys".
My students and co-workers were almost surprised to hear I'd never been in an incident involving gun violence. In countries like Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, where crime is almost non existent, America can seem extremely dangerous in comparison.
While I do believe gun violence is an issue in America, and I have no problem explaining my beliefs, I also try to dispel the myth that every person in America has guns. We're not having Western shootouts in our bars, and I definitely don't carry a small gun around in my purse.
3. Americans Only Eat Hamburgers and Pizza, Right?
Since hamburgers and pizza are the two most popular "American" cuisines offered in Asia, many people believe that Americans eat them for every meal. My co-workers and students all wanted to know what I ate at home for dinner if I wasn't eating hamburgers every night.
To be honest, my family eats such a wide variety of food from all over the world, so it was hard for me to answer the question!
The main thing I stress is that America is a nation made up of people from all over, and we have so many global, and regional American, cuisines. While there are a few traditional American and European staples that most people in the U.S. eat at home, I often find myself making tacos, chicken curry, or greek salad. When I go out to dinner with my friends, sometimes we'll order pizza, but we also may get sushi, Ethiopian food, Chinese, or Indian.
4. What is "Suburban"?
In Asia, most locations are labeled as either city or countryside. Describing my suburban city town was very difficult for me in China, especially since houses with yards are so uncommon. In Asia, even the countryside can be more crowded than an American suburban neighborhood.
While many people have seen suburban towns in movies and TV shows, describing the concept of living in a place that's not quite a metropolis, but not farmland either is quite a challenge.
5. You Don't Like McDonalds?!
In China, McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut are considered great options for a dinner out. Most surprisingly, Pizza Hut is actually a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths. One of my co-workers bragged to me about how he was taking his girlfriend to Pizza Hut for Valentines Day.
As such, many of my colleagues and students were shocked when I informed them that I rarely ever eat fast food in America. If I'm going to get a hamburger, it's going to be from a nice burger restaurant, and I only ever order Pizza Hut when I'm with a large group of people that don't want to go out.
People will be shocked to learn that McDonalds hamburgers are not considered high-quality in America. They honestly don't know what they're missing!
6. Why Do You Want to Be Tan?
In the U.S., celebrities, beauty magazines, advertisements, and the media in general are constantly promoting the idea that tanner is better. We like being tan, and compliment each other on it. In Asia, the exact opposite is true.
White skin is prized in most Asian countries, and girls will do anything to keep from getting a tan. Expect to see women toting sun umbrellas, or wearing long sleeves and pants at the beach. Most people will be absolutely shocked at your desire to tan or lay out in the sun.
I've been scolded by co-workers for being a little sunburnt. "Why didn't you bring an umbrella?!", they all but screamed at me.
One of my friends returned from a trip to Southeast Asia and was told by a co-worker that she was no longer beautiful because of her tan. If you tan easily, expect frequent comments about your new "ugly complexion".
7. Everyone in America is Fat
A common American stereotype, most people in Asia believe that all Americans are fat. The fact that Asians tend to have a slimmer build only exaggerates this belief. How could we not be fat, constantly eating hamburgers and pizza for all of our meals?
In China, I had a few very interesting conversations with co-workers about the obesity problem in America, and how it relates to poverty and processed foods. In Asia, most poor people eat vegetables and rice, and can't afford processed and packaged foods. In America, it's the exact opposite, where fresh vegetables are a luxury.
One co-worker asked me, "Why are vegetables so expensive in America? Anyone can just grow them in their backyard!"
I honestly didn't know how to answer his question. Sometimes you don't notice flaws in your own culture until others point them out.
8. All Americans are Wealthy
Finally, many Asians, especially in developing countries like China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, view America as "the richest country in the world" and expect every American to be extremely wealthy. While I'm definitely well-off compared to many of the locals in these countries, most of my co-workers were surprised by my college debt and lack of material possessions.
In most East Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China, material possessions are very important; even more so than the U.S.! Real designer handbags, fancy cars, luxury beauty products, and expensive clothing are highly valued. Because of this, my co-workers were shocked I would rather spend my salary on travel than a new handbag. Coming from "the richest country on earth", why wouldn't I be covered in designer goods?
We also had conversations about urban poverty and food deserts in America. Lack of school funding for education, rural poverty in factory towns, and unemployment only scrape the surface of America's poverty issues. Just because we're the "richest nation in the world" doesn't meant that everyone in America is rich.
I made sure to inform people that I had the privilege to grow up outside of poverty and have parents who were able to partially support my education, but many Americans aren't so lucky. While American poverty may pale in comparison to the extreme poverty of some countries like Cambodia, it still exists.
Be a Cultural Ambassador
While teaching abroad in Asia, your responsibility is greater than just teaching the language. As a foreigner living and working closely with impressionable kids (or curious adults!), it's your duty to act as a cultural ambassador.
While it may be frustrating to answer the same questions over and over again, think of all of the perceptions you're changing by having these conversations. Teaching abroad is definitely a cross-cultural learning experience. You can learn from your host country while they learn from you.Photo Credits: Richelle Gamlam, Martha Landry, and Chinese Tourists.