I was one of those people who knew from the start of their college experience that they were going to go abroad. It was the experience of my sister’s best friend, who spent a semester in Ireland, that got me interested when I was still in high school. I got to freshman orientation already certain that I was going to go to England, and it was only a few months later, still a year out from being able to apply for my program, that I chose the University of Sheffield. Friends and family would be the first to tell you that I wouldn’t shut up about it sometimes, something that certainly worsened after I was accepted to my chosen program last October.
That excitement never went away, even as I landed in Manchester and realized I was a few thousand miles past the point of no return. In the daze of adrenaline and exhaustion, I managed to get myself to Sheffield, and from there everything just started to fall into place. My transition period, which included finding an incredible group of friends at the international orientation, was easier than I could have ever imagined, and I’m already struggling with the thought of having to leave in a few months. Every morning, I get to walk to class with a view of South Yorkshire’s rolling green hills, and I’m immediately reminded of how unfortunately short my stay is going to be.
But for all of that I have experienced thus far, nothing can compare to the new perspective that I have gained toward my own sense of patriotism. From the way Americans like to talk about the United States, it’s easy to think of it as a paradise. And in a lot of ways, it is. We learn about the freedoms and the power that we have in our political process that so many others don’t. We’re the strongest nation in the world, a fact we don’t hesitate to share with others, and we pride ourselves on being a center of heterogeneous culture. But as much as we Americans love to list everything we do right, we tend to get offended when others tell us what we could be doing better. Living in the United States is like constantly being in a bubble of outspoken nationalism, with little opportunity to hear an outside perspective of what’s going on.
As busy as international orientation was, it put me in a situation where I really had to think critically about my own politics. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been asked how in the world Donald Trump became president, or what my personal opinions on him are. Second to Trump comes the issues of gun control and healthcare. As much as our gun laws and healthcare costs baffle Americans, such things are even more confusing to outsiders. Sometimes I get asked questions that really stump me, and I’ve been forced to think critically about things that I’ve never considered before. Most recently, it’s been questions about the purpose of the electoral college.
For me, it’s been a process akin to walking a tightrope. On the one hand, most people I’ve had discussions with have had very reasonable criticisms of how we do things in America. Some are funny, like the fact that we feel the need to deep fry everything, or that Twinkies are somehow a cultural staple when they’re really not that good. But others, like the fact that people resort to using GoFundMe in order to pay for cancer treatments, show how much skepticism people have in our way of doing things. It’s not out of malice or disdain for American ideals, but instead it’s a result of deeply rooted cultural differences that affect how we think certain issues should be tackled. On the other hand, as much as I admit that America does some things wrong, I feel quick to point out the things that we do well. As much as I say I don’t like Donald Trump, I feel obligated to defend the institutions of our government with a sort of hope that things are going to get better. And as much as I laugh at how crazy Americans get with their food, I still find enjoyment in trying to explain the concept of fried butter to a European.
If I’ve learned anything in the nearly three months that I’ve been here, it’s that it’s easier to see what your country could be doing better when you’re able to see it from another perspective. There are a lot of things that other countries of the world can learn from the United States, but we have to admit that we could learn a few things from others as well.