Friday, May 22, 2009

Coming Home

All-you-can-eat buffets, free refills, meals-on-the-go... America. For one who spends the academic year in Europe, coming home is always an adjustment. No matter how long one is away or how far one travels, any who travel can attest to that. Traveling opens our world, whether that's the intention or not. Even for one who travels often, coming home is always different. Or, perhaps, it is always the same.

Shortly after returning home from the spring semester at University, I had lunch with a friend who had also recently returned to the United States, after living abroad for the past decade. We settled on "Joe's Pizza and Pasta" for lunch, joking that it was probably a typical American 'fake Italian' restaurant (we can talk - we both study in Italy). Joe's turned out to have a lunch buffet, which we enjoyed, along with the massive fountain sodas with free refills. I reacquainted myself with American buffet customs by introducing them to my friend.

The check arrived at the table barely after we began eating, and shortly we both came to the realization that neither of us could eat anywhere near the amount many Americans would eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Turns out European serving sizes have become habit.

Every place, every home or adventure, has its own habits. I frequently find myself smiling or shaking my head and thinking, "that's America," no matter where I am. Just as frequently, the thought "that's Italy" or "that's Cairo" runs through my mind. Part of truly knowing any place or any culture is having the experience of returning -- of coming home. Seeing familiar faces and familiar places, the things that will never be the same and the things that will never change. When one leaves and then returns, one inevitably sees ones home through different eyes.

My mother will never quite understand how, after being born and raised in the United States, I come home and American supermarkets make no sense to me. But for one who learned to live on their own abroad, home will never be quite the same.

Another thing one will always run into, whether at home or abroad, is stereotypes. America tends to get a bad rap for stereotyping the rest of the world and being ignorant of anything beyond their state borders, much less anything beyond the national borders. This is probably mostly true. To be honest, however, the same is true of people all over the world.

Traveling can in some instances lead to being an ambassador of sorts - both to and from your own culture. I've seen and heard the stereotypes which various groups of people hold about themselves and about the rest of the world, from those which prove themselves over and over to those which hold not even a grain of truth. All Americans are egregiously wealthy. The entire non-English speaking world hates Americans. Americans understand the situation in Gaza. Every Muslim country forces every woman to wear a head scarf (or burka, even). The Middle East is dangerous. Italians are great lovers. Italians eat spaghetti with meatballs. All Americans just want to get drunk.

These are a few of the stereotypes I've heard, either overtly or inferred. Some are flattering - it certainly inflates the Italian ego to have the world think they're the best lovers - and some not so much.

To respond to a few: no, the entire world does not hate all Americans (just President Bush); no, not all Americans have unlimited reserves of wealth; very few Muslim nations require ANY woman to wear a headscarf, and some (Turkey) forbid it in public places; Italians do not eat spaghetti with meatballs; and not all Americans want to get drunk all the time -- just Americans studying abroad in Europe (or on Spring Break).

One stereotype I hear over and over, however, couldn't be farther from the truth: people accept these stereotypes as true. More often than not, I have been faced with inquisitiveness and not hostility, everywhere in the world.

Having been raised in a small, Virginian town where I attended the same high school as my mother, the quirks and traditions and even the stereotypes of the people of this town are part of me and my life just as much as of the lives of those around me. That's not to say I agree with or believe the same things as the people I grew up around, any more than I agree with all of the stereotypes I hear abroad. But all of the quirks and traditions and stereotypes I encounter in my life affect my interpretation of those I already knew and of those I will learn.

Perhaps, in the end, the best part of leaving is coming home.