Last year, during the presidential race, the media and the republicans agressively commentend on Michelle Obama saying that she was finally proud to be an American. Everyone was shocked at how "un-patriotic" she was - wondered how anyone who was running for president could have a wife who was not proud to be an American.
I knew exactly how she felt. I have noticed that the only time I will admit to being an American, the only time that I will actually defend my country is when I am travelling. Much of this is because, being the rebel that I am, I want to prove to others that Americans are aware of what is going on in the world, that they are not all unintelligent, that they did not all support Bush and the war in Iraq, etc. Essentially, I want to break American stereotypes.
Breaking stereotypes, having people say to me, 'you are the first American I have gotten along with' or 'hmmm. Didn't know that about America and Americans' is quite thrilling. I enjoy being the person who opens people's eyes to the potential of Americans.
As I travel, I strive to be open to breaking the stereotypes that exist about others.
As I walked home yesterday, with my big shopping bags (coutesy of purchasing my linens from Primark), a man passed me as I was approaching my house. He walked passed me, noticed my struggles and then in a soft effeminate voice asked, "Would you like some help with that?" in a perfect British accent. I thanked him, "No I am almost home" but that did not stop my shock.
A few months prior to that, I read a book, recommended by some jolly English colleagues called Watching the English. This book is an anthropological study of what makes the English English. Fascinating. But at the same time, not surprising. At the end of it all, it essentially boiled down to the fact that the English in public are a bunch of social bumblers who need rules or alcohol to actually be themselves.
So I entered into this situation with the knowledge that the English may not be the most open of all cultures. And this stereotype has consistently - much to the pleasure of the English themselves - been broken.
From the man asking if I needed help, to all of the people who laughed at me as I laughed at myself, I have been pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and helpfulness of the English. (Although a bit of me wonders if it is just because I have been appropriately friendly and full of laughter at myself first).
Nonetheless - a stereotype has been broken and I am encouraged by my interactions with the English...although throughout this whole process I feel more and more 'typically' American...a fact I am not very proud of and am trying to change. Not the American part - the typical part.
The French have amazing stereotypes against them, particularly the 'rude Parisians'. After my first visit to Paris, I came away surprised! The only really 'bad' experience that I had with Parisians was in a pharmacy when I was trying to find throat lozenges. I had a horribly cold, and wanted to find something to soothe my throat. This was also the first time that I entered a shop and started off with the sentence, "Parlez-vous francais?"
Prior to that I had operated 'in French mode', that is speaking in French to any native French person, from the waiters, shopkeepers, boulangers, etc. Most of the time they could tell from my butchered French accent that I was not a French speaker, so they would revert to English. However, sometimes they did not and we spoke exclusively in French (how my favourite creperie became my favourite).
The most emotion and the most 'rudeness' I received was a bit of a sigh as they reverted from French to English. The woman at the pharmacy was the rudest, begrudgingly (and slightly rudely) helping me and not understanding my requests for something to make my sore throat feel better.
I left with the knowledge that Parisians are very proud of their language - and if you approach them with the openness to learn their language, they are more likely to accept you and be nice to you.
My second experience with Paris only confirmed that fact. And actually found some of the individuals we interacted with quite lovely!
People groups are just a group of individuals. Stereotypes about groups only increases your judgements about them. This limits your openness to learning something new about that people group.
Stay open. Don't stereotype.