Perceptions vary from person to person, revealing the different levels of experience that people have. From opinions about people to countries we see the use of stereotypes. With its global reach it is easy to see how perceptions of the USA dominate conversations about nations. However, all too readily people who have never lived in a given country, and revert to stereotypical analyses of that nation. The Brits drink tea, the Germans are good at making cars.etc, etc. Of course the USA looms large on the horizon of stereotypes.
What might an outsider see in the USA? Well they might see hamburgers eaten in chrome diners by large people digesting them, who consequently drive large automobiles; the nation that developed guns as fashion accessories; or might we see beautiful people, brashness, sun-shine, surf, beaches, Baywatch, Hollywood. So much of these preconceptions are derived from Hollywood. The outsider sees the USA through the shop window, not realizing that shop windows are deceptive to mind's eye.
In the late summer of 200 I embarked upon my voyage to the USA, to participate in an exchange to Washington College, a small liberal arts college situated on the eastern shore of Maryland [pronounced "Merryland", as I was shortly to find out]. Aside from luggage I was equipped with the pre-conceptual baggage of what I would find in the USA, in particular at my intended destination of small-town America. The dreaded vision loomed high on the horizon of locals dressed in lumberjack shirts driving around town in their 4x4 pick-up trucks complete with dog and shotgun in the rear. And of the school/college/uni itself, well the vision of a socially liberal institution promising social emancipation and glamour, especially for a Brit armed with a British accent.
I'll have a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred.James Bond 007
Reality is a sharp check to dangerous illusions. True I did meet the locals, but even so they formed a minority where I was based. On the whole the local population presented themselves as very friendly. With reference to the college students, they in reality presented ordinary faces, and people. They did not all resemble movie stars such as Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise, nor did they all drive massive mobile metropolises. Some people actually did walk, albeit only a few for herein the pre-conceived stereotypes can be discerned and I am sad to say Americans are most easily inclined to drive down the street rather than to walk.
The reality of living in the USA did allow me, an outsider, to categorize the society which I had entered, in effect creating new stereotypes, but ones based on true experiences. Truth - not everybody in the USA is fat or model-esque, but it is remarkable to note that the extremities of physical appearance were more prominent than say in comparison to the UK. Americans have a definitive smile, the wide open confident grin blinding onlookers with flashes of white glowing teeth. Thus the reality posed a picture of contrasts.
However, the fundamental bottom line to a visitor from the UK, that all too often it was easy to forget that I was in the USA. There was something familiar, although much of the pre-conceived assumptions were upon arrival blown out of the water. However, differences they were, and these were only noticeable beneath the surface, hidden away from the outsider.
By Sunjit Lalli