Afraid of confronting anti-American hostility abroad—eh? Consider assuming a Canadian identity to avoid uncomfortable encounters
by Tyler Moss
Canada has provided the United States with a number of valuable commodities over the years—from giving us teen deity Justin Bieber to serving as the destination of choice for folks frustrated by our nation’s politics. However, our northern neighbors have more to offer than Bieber Fever. Both students and study abroad advisors say Canada frequently provides another notable export: identity.
Most foreign countries have become familiar with the stereotypical ugly American: fat, arrogant, loud, warmonger. While such blanket attributes are certainly more fiction than fact, in some places they’ve given birth to anti-American hostility. But eschewing that behavior while walking the streets of Paris doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe from harassment.
Some universities actually make a point of advising students traveling internationally to masquerade as Canadian. Depending on your destination country, some of the more political locals – or maybe just the inebriated ones – might consider an American accent to be a tacit endorsement of U.S. foreign policy. In such situations, posing as a Canuck could be your saving grace.
That certainly was the case for Jim Dolatowski, who studied abroad in Austria during his sophomore year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before leaving, the university’s study abroad office advised Dolatowski to avoid the “loud and obnoxious, covered in American flags” persona, which ultimately became a successful strategy. After an exciting, harassment-free program in Vienna, he spent the summer gallivanting around Europe and was met with little anti-U.S. hostility. That is, until one night at a train station in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Dolatowski and some friends were waiting for a train when a man approached them and started yelling in broken English, “You f---ing Americans! I hate George Bush!” Thinking fast, Dolatowski lied, telling the pungently drunk European that he and his friends were actually Canadian. The heckler was immediately placated, and actually went on to hold a “pretty pleasant” conversation with the group, Dolatowski says.
Aside from that isolated incident, Dolatowski found most countries welcomed him with open arms.
“If you're pretty reasonable with people, they'll be nice back,” he says. “For instance, France has the reputation of being anti-American. But as long as you don't expect them to cater to your needs, you'll be OK.”
Some advisers endorse Dolatowski’s solution to defusing tense situations.
“I have advised students, on occasion, to conceal American identity,” says Fr. Art Wheeler, director of studies abroad at the University of Portland in Oregon.
Wheeler says students have used this strategy over the years in places such as Salzburg, Austria, especially during the time of strife in Croatia and Serbia.
A program director at Brigham Young University advised then-student Matt Gill to claim Canadian citizenship while studying abroad in the United Kingdom during the fall semester in 2007. Resentment toward former President George W. Bush and harsh feelings toward the war in Iraq had many Brits accusing all Americans of guilt by association, Gill says.
Gill also says the most awkward situations would arise on public transit, where he often found himself packed like a sardine, desperately attempting to avoid eye contact with politically charged Brits looking to make small talk. He soon found that identifying himself as Canadian was the easiest way to divert attention.
The only problem arose when a few more geographically savvy Brits challenged him by asking from which province he hailed. Gill solved the problem by developing an entire Canadian persona: “I’d say I was from British Columbia, make up some school there, and they’d usually stop the questions after that,” he says.
Yet there are others who think that going aboot impersonating our Celine Dion-centric border-buddies only perpetuates the problem.
Alicia Stanley, associate director of study abroad at Northwestern University, thinks there are ways to blend in and avoid standing out as an American without assuming a fake identity. She says simply being immersive and spending time with locals instead of boisterous fellow Americans can work wonders toward subverting popular stereotypes.
“Study abroad is ideally a two-way exchange,” Stanley says. “American students can serve as ambassadors of their schools and their countries while abroad by getting to know locals and, through actions and conversations, help to break down stereotypes and barriers. If we provide false information, we risk losing the opportunity to enhance understanding and build friendships.”
Ultimately, it seems that being a citizenship chameleon is entirely situational. In Dolatowski’s circumstances, his quick thinking may have saved him from an anti-American harangue. But in Gill’s case, showing his angry English instigators he was an intelligent, free-thinking individual whose views are not always in harmony with those of our government may have better served him and the overseas reputation of the U.S.
Of course, if all else fails, you can just bring the conversation back to Justin Bieber.