EUROPE

Finding Home, Abroad

They say sometimes you have to leave home in order to find it.

They don’t mention that the people you’ll meet will be eager to find it for you.

“Kentucky, where’s that? In the south? Oh, so you’re racist.”

“Kentucky, like the fried chicken!”

“But you’re not fat.”

“You must be German. American? Wow, you speak French pretty well for an American.”

[insert attempt at hollywood-informed Kentucky accent here]

Representing Kentucky: a map of KFC locations in France. Source: http://www.prixfastfood.com/carte/

Representing Kentucky: a map of KFC locations in France. Source: http://www.prixfastfood.com/carte/

I found myself constructing on the spot answers to questions I had hardly thought of before, let alone been asked in my second language in another country. To the “you’re racist” remark, I could manage only a baffled smile and an “I don’t know” before tackling the simpler question of geography (it’s a state, shaped like a hand if you hold it like this, south of Chicago, etc). As for the rest of them, well, I tried.

It’s easy to view the questions we’re asked while abroad as trivial, funny or annoying. It’s simple to dismiss all the fried chicken jokes with a chuckle and move on with our lives. It’s tempting to just go along with it all — that’s okay, it’s how they see us here, it’s a culture thing.

But do we really spend months of preparation, empty our bank accounts, navigate foreign bureaucratic and educational systems, and fly over entire continents and oceans, all for the privilege of laughing charitably at fried chicken jokes?

Let’s face it, education abroad is a privilege. At the risk of sounding like a Marvel comic, when we have the great opportunity to enter someone else’s home, we have an equally great responsibility to represent our own.

This becomes especially important in the context of events happening in our host country and back home. For example, while I was studying in France, Americans protesting police brutality lent momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement, publicized a long-standing problem, pressured leadership at all levels, and inspired widespread debates on identity, racism and accountability. The first video footage I saw of April’s Baltimore protests was on an Arabic-language news channel in a restaurant in Marseille.

While the U.S. and Iran were busy negotiating a nuclear deal, an attack on the offices of Parisian weekly satirical paper Charlie Hebdo killed eleven people and led to heightened tensions, worldwide displays of solidarity, and dialogue on discrimination, religious pluralism, and freedom of expression… mainstream media was just beginning high-volume coverage of the “migrant crisis”…

In this context, a new acquaintances equating “white girl from southern U.S.” with “racist” is not trivial. Kentucky is more than the sum of its chicken wings. It’s not just a “culture thing”; it’s important that we think critically about how we represent our home.

They say you have to leave home in order to find it. Here’s hoping we also learn to question our place in it.

Banners on Marseille's city hall on January 12, 2015 read "We are Charlie" and "We are France." Local context influences the questions American students are asked abroad.

Banners on Marseille’s city hall on January 12, 2015 read “We are Charlie” and “We are France.” Local context influences the questions American students are asked abroad.

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Dillon.

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Kelsey Dillon is senior at the University of Kentucky studying Anthropology and French. Kelsey participated in the ISEP Exchange-Aix-Marseille Universite program in Spring 2015.