This is an image is from a 1980s film. The look and style of Val Kilmer's character exemplifies what I remember as the typical American studying abroad around that time.
American Students Overseas, Then and Now
September 20, 2010
September 20, 2010
When I returned to university as a mature student on a postgraduate program, one of the changes in the landscape that struck me the most was the contrast between the Reagan-era overseas Americans I had known as a high school student and their successors, the overseas Americans of the George W. Bush regime.
The Americans I befriended in the 1980s were all White and fit nearly every positive and negative European stereotype.
On the negative side they were loud — incapable of not bursting a person’s eardrums with their vociferated greetings, laughter, and conversation; they were chauvinistic and jingoistic — America was always right, always first, always best at everything; they were arrogant and condescending — there was only one correct way of seeing or doing things, and that was the American way; they were proudly ignorant — many could not locate countries other than the United States and her immediate neighbors in a world map (“Spain... isn’t that South of Mexico?”); and they had no use for sayings like “in Rome, do like the Romans” — it was always “in any country, be as American as possible, all the time, anywhere, everywhere”. They read American magazines, watched American television programs, and even ate American food, which they sourced from their respective embassies or military bases. In fact, some of these overseas Americans managed to almost completely insulate themselves from the local culture, and even then they participated in reentry orientation programs that were in place for U.S.-bound Americans who had been away for more than a year. America was the alpha and the omega, the cosmic epicenter, the promised land, won with guns and blessed by God.
On the positive side they were honest, hardworking, and self-motivated — when homework was given, or there was an exam, one could count with the fact that they would give it their best effort; they were positive and confident — they faced difficulties and misfortunes bravely, never allowing themselves to lapse into depression, sullenness, or self-pitying negativity; they had a can-do attitude — presented with a challenge, they rose to it and saw anything as possible provided one had the right attitude; they were not petty nor envious — faced with a display of excellence, they were genuinely pleased and the first to offer a congratulatory handshake or pat on the back; they were open, approachable, and friendly — although they sought the company of fellow Americans, the way that compatriots do when they find each other abroad, they were never hostile or unpleasant towards strangers and they were quick to trust and offer their hospitality. I always sought and preferred the company of Americans for these reasons, and for a while I could not conceive of dating a girl who was not a fair American.
Both men and women flaunted an obviously and uniquely American sartorial style. The men almost invariably wore jeans, bright white sneakers or high tops, white socks, and brightly—colored tee shirts or polo shirts; the women plastered their faces with an inch-thick layer of makeup and had hairstyles that looked like stars that had gone supernova, held in place by several CFC-gushing canfuls of hairspray (remember: this was the big hair era of the 1980s).
The men spoke in a low but loud monotone, sometimes forcing their voices below their natural pitch, to signal maximized testosterone levels; the women spoke in an ultrasonic whine or squeal that, unfortunately, sometimes belied their intellect. Neither were singularly averse to racial epithets: in male company I heard — although they were used very rarely — the words ‘nigger’, ‘spic’, and ‘wetback’ deployed in conversation without controversy, and when I used the word ‘nigger’ on one occasion (right out in the open, basically repeating something I had heard a friend say some time before), I only got a mild reprimand from a female friend, who said plaintively, “Don’t call them that.”
Perhaps a cruel caricature of the White American male from this period was a person who ate McDonalds, drank Coca Cola, read Stephen King, donned baseball caps and denim jackets, rode BMX bikes, watched baseball and American football, listened to some form of Rock music, and watched brutal Schwarzenegger and Stallone films; he wore brands like Nike, Levi’s, Vans, Converse, and Ray-Ban. The White American female listened to Madonna and Cindy Lauper and Duran Duran, watched Dynasty, read Barbara Bradford-Taylor, permed their hair with frizzy coiffures, and wore big shoulder pads or spandex acid wash jeans with stratospheric waistbands. Both the stereotypical male and female was tough, brave, assertive, hardnosed, and hugely ambitious, especially in dollar terms. This was tempered by the magnanimous disposition — entirely devoid of malice — of a omnipotent race of world masters.
The American students I encountered twenty years later were unrecognizable. To start with they were of mixed racial stock, some White, others Black (ranging from dark to medium brown).
This image is from the end of the 2000s, showing an overseas American student in South Africa. The style and body language is in line with what I encountered in the post-graduate programme.
The Black ones, exactly like one or two I encountered in high school, were middle class, soft- and well-spoken and behaved like normal students — neither loud nor unusually quiet. Unlike the rather friendly and easygoing exemplars from the 1980s, however, the new crop were noticeably more serious, almost surly — they never or joked or smiled.
The White Americans, on the other hand, were nothing like their Rambo-fed predecessors: they spoke softly, moved diffidently, were apologetic, and made obvious efforts to blend in with their attire and their accents. Gone where the swagger, bright colors, and porn-star looks; gone where the booming voice and exclamatory whooping and squealing; gone, even, were the flaunting, the smirking, and the sense of absolute certainty: these modern overseas White Americans desired no one to notice their country of origin, and, in fact, struck me as ashamed of being American in the first place. Even their muscles were gone.
There was one make-up-less female I remember, who seemed interested in doing mission work in Africa. She struck me as being in a permanent state of righteous anger, at least whenever I was present; but she otherwise kept a low profile. When I spoke to her I was not able to immediately recognize an American accent: she had one, but she had done a competent job at suppressing it. She quietly avoided me after I said that the Democrats (for whom she had done volunteer work) were indistinguishable from the Republicans, save for minor areas like a percentage point up or down in the rate of income tax. I think she was deeply offended.
The Americans I knew in the 1980s socialized without much regard for race: the Black ones had mostly White friends, and they were affable and courteous towards me. This might have been because there were very few in number — maybe one or two per grade. The Blacks I encountered later exhibited more tribal tendencies, despite their low numbers, and kept company with one another. They were icy towards me — even contemptuous in one case — although this might have been because I reminded my fellow students during one of the seminars that until recently the natives of Africa never had nation states, that these were created by White colonialism, and that (at least in places like South Africa) the land that made up said nation states was either sold or given by the Blacks to the Whites during the 19th century in exchange of military service.
In any event, it was clear that modern students had been reared on a different body of literature. Noel Ignatiev, perhaps?
There are some potentially important factors we need to consider before drawing conclusions. Firstly, the overseas Americans I encountered a lustrum ago belonged to an arguably superior, more refined breed: one that qualified for a postgraduate program at an elite university, as opposed to an undergraduate program for expatriates in a generic high school. Secondly, the later overseas Americans lived in a post-9/11 world, and were embarrassed by George Bush and his neocon government’s foreign policy. Thirdly, the later Americans were uniformly Democrat supporters, while my coevals from the 1980s came from both Democrat and Republican—supporting households. Fourthly, the Americans in the latter group where expatriates, sons of diplomats and military personnel temporarily stationed at embassies and bases, while the Americans in the former group were individuals studying abroad at a foreign university of their choice. And finally, the sample from the glory days of Yuppiedom and Mike Tyson was much larger than the sample from the age of the War on Terror.
Despite all these caveats, however, I could not help but find the contrast between the two groups significant, as they were harmonious with the background historical and sociocultural developments that took place during the intervening years.
There appeared to be a corresponding contrast between the America of my teenage years and the America of my prime. Many of the harmful trends and phenomena blighting the United States during the mid 2000s — globalization, political correctness, deficit spending, and third wave feminism — began in the 1980s, while others — e.g. multiculturalism as a government policy — began just before but were felt later. All the same, from my vantage point in continental Europe, the United States irradiated exuberance, opulence, velocity, and nuclear force.
A visit in the late 1980s and another in the early 1990s — one to the southern United States and the other to the Midwest — did little to disconfirm what seems now an excessively optimistic view. This might have been because I saw mostly middle class suburbia, giant shopping malls, university facilities, and lightyear-wide highways flanked by vast coniferous forests. This might have been also because my earlier United States destinations during the first years of the 1980s had consisted of luxury holiday resorts.
By the middle of the last decade, however, I had come increasingly to see the United States as a hollowed-out, floundering superpower, drowning under a tide of Third World immigration, public and private debt, political correctness, and universal discredit — a country that had dismantled its manufacturing base, squandered its wealth, mortgaged its future, and (through being so obviously in the thrall of an aggressive Zionist clique) plundered its moral capital on the world stage. By the end of the decade, with a Black president in office compounding already staggering deficits with ruinous economic policies, with pointless interminable open-ended wars raging in far-flung regions of the world, with regions being systematically invaded and handed over to immigrants from a neighboring country with territorial ambitions, it was apparent to me that the long and sad descent into bankruptcy, mongrelization, and eventual dismemberment had by then become inexorable.
Alarming signs appeared to justify this gloomy perception during a visit to the country last year.
An excursion to a shopping mall in Atlanta revealed some astonishing demographic and cultural changes. Firstly, nearly all the White Americans I saw there and on my way there were elderly and diffident — they looked, in fact, positively archaic, living relics from a bygone age; by contrast the colored shoppers were predominantly young and cocky — they swaggered and strutted their stuff with bouncing shoulders, jutted chins, and angry stares. Many evinced or were evidence of a prodigious fecundity. Secondly, there was not a single bookshop anywhere: the shops sold mostly food, fashion accessories, and jewelry. And thirdly, there were no record shops — the shopping malls of yesteryear usually had one or two, offering a selection of classical, traditional, and popular music. It might be that I visited the wrong shopping mall, or that I was in the wrong part of town, or the wrong city, or the wrong state, or the wrong region; but elsewhere I found only vendors of food, packed or prepared. Was it the depression? Whatever the reason, I felt out of place: local commerce appeared to cater only to the lowest common denominator, meaning basic survival and basic status display.
Another sign was the almost complete transformation of the rolling stock on the roads: 90% of the cars in circulation were foreign-made. I could not but remember of my experience in the mid 1970s, when every single vehicle on the road was Made in America — White America. Cars from that period do not enjoy the best of reputations; they weighed as much as a brown star, they were defiantly unaerodynamic, they guzzled gallons of fuel per mile, and for seats had benches made out of slippery vinyl that caused me as a child sitting at the rear to slide from port to starboard and back every time my father made a sharp turn. Whatever their deficiencies, I was fascinated by these American cars (and even more by their 60s and 50s predecessors) on account of their roaring ferocity and enormous length and size. Nowhere else in the world could one find cars like these — no one else could afford to make them! (Or run them: the fuel tank of my father’s 1976 Gran Torino could siphon dry an entire oil field with each filling.) Presently, many American models are much smaller, less distinctive, more economical, and look like blockier versions of their European counterparts. Is it globalization?
It might be that through a concatenation of circumstances, flukes, nostalgia, transferences, projections, and amazing coincidences, I ended up with a distorted view of the facts, seeing only what I needed to see to confirm acquired fears or misconceptions. Who knows? But it would be interesting to discover whether others have observed the same as I.