break the silence of the unknown


Day 32

I’m beginning realize how much I really don’t know about other cultures and customs. It is quite embarrassing to enter a conversation about football, and realize too late that people are not referring to American football, but rather “soccer.” I never realized how ignorant I could be until I met someone from another country that I have never heard of before.

In my European Societies seminar last Thursday, my class spent an entire hour discussing the European dream. There are about twelve people in my class from different areas of Europe and me, the only one from the outside. My classmates discussed the EU’s potential collapse, Brexit, and the EU’s questionable human rights policies. During the discussion, I felt a little useless- I didn’t know much more about the European Dream than the assigned readings.

Throughout the class discussion, I began to realize that the world is more complicated that I thought. As much as I enjoy micro-level thinking by focusing particular place, I recognize that global thinking is important as well. I tried to absorb every new piece of information about Europe, making notes of the terms that I did not know. Despite my valiant note-taking efforts, I felt a little disconnected at times during the conversation. Can I really understand other students’ arguments if I do not know some of the basic policies they are mentioning?

Soon after I realized that I felt lost in the conversation, the professor looked at me, switching the topic from the European Dream.  She asked me a question: “Do you believe that the American Dream is collapsing?”

The whole class turned towards me, intently awaiting my response. I started to answer this broad question based on my experience and education in the US. Then, I mentioned a little bit about the current US political campaign with Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, the good ol’ US meritocratic system of inequalities, and the unrelenting capitalist society.

This moment felt like I was a bag of popcorn in the microwave, spitting out ideas faster and faster until I would run of ideas to share. As the only person who has ever lived in the US, I knew I was the expert in the room and I was thrilled to share my observations.

About two minutes into my ramble, I saw a hesitant girl raise her hand to ask a question from the corner of my eye. I immediately stopped my train of thought in its tracks, ending my sentence with a long pause.

How did I get so carried away by talking about the US? This class is titled European Societies.

The room grew silent. I felt everyone lean from their seats, overwhelmed from the break in my thought. My face felt hot, sweaty. After a slow inhale, I mustered the courage to speak again. Nodding towards the raised hand across the room, I nervously admitted to the class that I have been rambling too much about the American Dream, and it probably should get back on topic to focusing on Europe. I told the student to go ahead and ask her question to the class.

There was another stillness and I looked down at my notes. I just wanted to sink into the old carpet beneath my chair to hide from my embarrassment. One of my fears could now be reality- being identified as the US girl abroad that only talks about the US.

Gradually, the class turned their attention to the student across the room. She lowered her hand, looking briefly confused. Then, she chuckled.

She told me that she’d like me to elaborate on the current political environment in the US- mostly about how people could possibly choose to vote for Trump. She said that she didn’t know much, and just wanted to learn beyond her Europe bubble.

The rest of the class quickly chimed in their questions, seemly relieved to move off the heated topic of the EU for a while to learn more about the US. They were just as curious to learn as much as I am, and just as afraid to break the silence of the unknown.

I did not waste the class’ time and I started answering their questions. So, I shared some more of my “insights” with the class and fielded some more political questions until the seminar was over.

I left class with a smile, excited that I survived and thrived in my first seminar about a region that I have been ignorant about for years.

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