Last week, I was sitting in a booth at McDonald’s (because a girl can crave McNuggets from anywhere in the world) with Brent, who is another Arkansas Tech student who came to Austria. A song with a catchy beat came on the radio and, without thinking, I began to bob my head along. Okay, there was some shoulder action, too. Anyway, Brent noticed and, with a smirk, stated, “Somebody told me that the best way to spot an American is to find the person dancing along to the music in public.”
I went still, the hot coils of embarrassment slinking down my throat. And then a moment later, I shoved that feeling to the side and said, “So what? I am American. That’s not something I should be ashamed of or trying to hide.”
As I thought about it, I realized that has been a common theme in my life since leaving the United States: Don’t exude tourist vibes. Don’t stick out. Don’t behave like an American. As if “American” is a dirty word, which is absurd. Don’t get me wrong, I strive to be a positive representation of USA and ATU, but I have never been fond of pretending to be someone I’m not, and Europe isn’t going to change that.
I am from America, and no matter what I do, something is going to give that away, so that night in McDonald’s I made a decision. I said to Brent, “I cannot obsess over what other people think of me. I traveled thousands of miles to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I will not let other people’s opinions hinder my enjoyment.”
Granted, that is easier said than done, but it is a mantra I have to keep in the back of my mind at all times, because, country of origin aside, there has been a lot of pressure to change since I’ve been here. Since arriving in Austria I’ve developed these notions of how I should be feeling and spending my time. I feel as if there should be excitement around every corner, or that, in the two weeks I’ve been here, I should have already made some fabulous best friends. That simply is not the case. Some days I explore the wonders that Graz has to offer, and some days I come back from class and watch Netflix for six hours. There has absolutely been an adjustment period and it has taken time to feel comfortable in this foreign city. That is not a bad thing.
I know there are plenty of thrills in my future—I’ve got trips to Budapest and Italy and Vienna planned!—but I’ve learned how important it is to seek out genuine joy while I’m here, rather than a manufactured rendition of adventure just because of what I feel like my experience “should” be. I am studying abroad to grow as a person, not change as a person.
People, in any country, are going to judge me no matter what I do, so these next five-anda-half months, I am focusing on what makes me happy. This experience is mine, and I am not surrendering it to other people’s negativity.