Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy Saint Andrew's Day!

First off, apologies for my recent neglect of this blog.  It turns out being a  MA Journalism student can be quite busy, especially during finals.  Luckily, I'm all done at the end of this week... sort of. Classes end tomorrow and then I have a week of essay due dates and shorthand exams.  Then a week of work placement at this magazine, and then I'm really done.

But in spite my hectic schedule, I need to take a few minutes to tell you about Saint Andrew's Day 2011 in Edinburgh.

Saint Andrew's Cross, The Saltire, is on Scotland's Flag
November 30 is a bank holiday in Scotland every year to celebrate the life of Scotland's Patron Saint, Andrew of Galilee.  While it isn't as raucous or legendary as Ireland's Saint Patrick's day, Saint Andrew's Day is an important holiday in Scotland, especially for history buffs. For the week leading up to November 30, many Scottish Heritage sites, especially castles, offer free entry and events.

Today I took advantage of this program with a free trip to Edinburgh Castle.  The city's top attraction, it is home to Scotland's War Museum, The Stone of Destiny, and the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Since it was built around 1130 AD, it has seen many battle but never changed hands by anything but willing surrender.  As far as castles go, Edinburgh is as tough as they come.

 It is also the inspiration for Hogwarts' Castle in the Harry Potter series, which is pretty exciting for nerds like me.

But this year's Saint Andrew's Day wasn't only marked by free entry to attractions and closed banks. This year, November 30 saw 300,000 public sector workers go on strike in Scotland, as part of a larger "day of action" throughout Britain.  Universities, libraries, doctor's offices, and local government shut down today, as workers protested pension cuts.

I witnessed a demonstration in the city centre this morning, and it was absolutely massive.

To be honest, I'm not sure what my exact opinion is on this movement, but I was happy to see all these people standing up for their beliefs in a non-violent way.  As my friend Claudia said, we were lucky to witness "British Democracy in Action" on Saint Andrews day.

And with classes cancelled as our lecturers walked out, we had a ready-made excuse to skive off and enjoy a wee bit of free sightseeing on Saint Andrews day!

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Deal with Stereotypes while Travelling

Loud. Proud. Fake. Closed-minded.  Safety-obsessed.  Uptight.  Imposing.  Assuming. Ignorant. These are a few of the American stereotypes I’ve encountered since moving to Edinburgh.

I shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of British and European people have preconceived notions about the United States. People all over the world are exposed to American films, television, sports, and politics every day. With constant exposure these things, of course people will develop opinions of the USA, even if they haven’t met an American before.  Unfortunately, some of these opinions are negative.

In a way, I can’t blame people for being a bit cynical about Americans.  We impose our culture on the rest of the world, and yet we often fail to learn about our global neighbors. But it’s also not fair to make assumptions about people you don’t know, and being subjected to a stereotype can be difficult to deal with.

So, I’ve come up with a few coping mechanisms. 
Laugh it off.  When somebody raises their eyebrows or rolls their eyes after hearing I’m American, I might say “I know, you were expecting a 250-pound, bleached-blonde, ultra-conservative, nut-job.  Sorry to disappoint.”  By addressing the stereotype in an off-hand way, I’m able to challenge them without starting an argument.  Joking around about the stereotypes I don’t take myself too seriously, and helps me make new friends. 
Ask “why do you think that?” Even though it’s tempting to take a defensive position and challenge a stereotype, it’s more constructive to try to understand why that stereotype exists.  Maybe your new Austrian friend thinks American girls are shallow and giggly because he’s watched a lot of teen films from the 90’s.  Or maybe that French girl thinks Americans are rude because she met a lot of pushy American tourists while working in a shop in Paris.  Questioning the root of stereotypes can start interesting conversations—and it shows that you’re concerned with others’ perceptions of your country.
 Just walk away.  If someone’s being blatantly rude or antagonistic towards your nationality, just leave the conversation.  There’s no point in engaging with somebody who’s determined to dislike you. Besides, if someone is closed-minded enough to attack you based only on where you were born, who care’s what they think? 

But please don’t do this…
Some Americans I’ve met abroad have deal with stereotypes by simply “jumping on the bandwagon.”  In just agreeing with whatever assumption about Americans that they come across, they hope to come off as likeable.  They represent themselves as a “rare” and “unique” American, above all the flaws of the rest of their country. 
To me, this is shallow and disingenuous.  Travelers have a responsibility to represent their homes in the best ways possible. This doesn’t mean bragging or denying a country’s flaws, but it does mean being honest about their opinions. People can always tell when someone’s lying to impress others, anyway.
So be honest and polite.  Ask questions.  You may learn something about yourself as well as the people you talk with.  And isn’t that what travel is all about?