Who are Americans?
We are red, white and blue. We are upwardly mobile. We are united, and we are confident. We are diverse, and we celebrate it.
As the old car advertising jingle says, w e like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.
"Americans are rule-breakers," said Charlie Case, an Augusta State University sociology professor who teaches a course on American pop culture. "Americans are not good at obeying rules (and haven't been) since the Boston Tea Party. I think that's what foreigners notice when they first come here."
Rock 'n' roll and cowboy movies are icons of American culture, and personalities such as P. Diddy and John Wayne illustrate American rebelliousness, which leads to ideas of crime and dysfunctionality, Dr. Case said.
That rebelliousness also leads to more creativity, as demonstrated by the huge number of U.S. Nobel Prize winners.
Dr. Case said that some people from other cultures hate America for its perceived rebelliousness and aggressiveness.
"Our national character plays out on the world stage now," he said. "We are feisty and don't care what anyone thinks about it. We do it our way."
Every year, exchange students come to the United States to see this character firsthand.
"The opinion in Sweden is that Americans are full of themselves," said Ida (pronounced EE-dah) Svedlund, a 24-year-old exchange student at ASU. "They think they are better than the rest, and that they can go out and start a war and put in a new government. Some people think it's great that you're acting like the world police, and some people don't like it at all."
In the tiny former Soviet state of Moldova, opinions of Americans are about the same, said 17-year-old Irina Melnic, an exchange student at Greenbrier High School.
"Americans are arrogant," she said, repeating a stereotype she often has heard in her country.
They're used to getting what they want, no matter how rude they have to be to get it, Ms. Svedlund said. She's found, however, that while Americans do seem to know what they want and are sure they're going to get it, they aren't necessarily rude about it.
Irina has noticed the same thing.
"If people want something, they find a way to do it," she said. "There is no such thing as 'no.' "
Though people from other cultures might resent American attitudes, Dr. Case said, "all they want is American movies and music. It's a love/hate thing."
Ms. Svedlund, Irina and Venezuelan Toni Reyes said that people at home base their ideas of American culture on movies, television shows and magazines.
"The America that we get at home is a fantasyland," Ms. Reyes said , a 28-year-old sophomore at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
She said that her friends from home call her and ask her about all of the parties she goes to, and she has to tell them that her life in the United States just isn't that way. She said she went to more parties at home in Venezuela.
"(I ask them,) 'seriously, do you think I live in a TV show?' And they do. That's the stereotype," she said.
Ms. Svedlund was surprised to find that American people questioned the government and are critical of the way the country is run, just like in her home country.
"You've got the flag everywhere, and from the outside, you look kind of like a united, big country, and everybody has kind of the same points of view," she said. "But people do express their minds more than I thought, and there are a lot of different opinions about everything."
Cultural diversity is non -existent in Moldova because the fledgling country, which is slightly larger than Maryland, was under communist regime as part of the Soviet Union until 1991. As a result, Irina, who came for a year as part of 4- H's Future Leaders Exchange Program , was surprised by the vastness of American culture.
"(My friends) call America 'pizza,' because there are so many different cultures and so many different people living (together). So it's a pizza," she said.
The old "melting pot" metaphor actually was Anglo-conformity, which forced people from other cultures to drop their own cultural heritage and adopt American customs and mannerisms, according to Dr. Case. Now it's about respecting everybody's differences.
"We're about halfway there," the professor said. "But we still expect everybody to be American for the most part."
The issue of race in America was a big surprise to each of the women. Though prejudice is present in their countries, it typically is based on economic status rather than the color of skin.
No one was more amazed than Ms. Reyes, who said that Venezuela is such a mix of cultures that you can't base prejudices on racial differences.
"One family will have it all," she said. "White, tall, short, fat, thin, curly hair, straight, blond, brunette... so you cannot really have a race issue when all of your family fits into the (different) races."
The idea of the American Dream, another notion to which Americans tightly cling, is a concept Ms. Svedlund is familiar with but doesn't personally relate to because bigger, better, faster and stronger aren't images that make sense to her.
"The American Dream is something that we refer to," the Swede said. "Like, you make it on your own, and that money is important in your country, that you need to have big cars and big houses."
Bigger and better, however, is a trend she is starting to see in her country, and as much as they might not like to admit it, Swedish people are beginning to follow American ways, she said.
Ms. Reyes sees this in Venezuela, too. Bakeries, once small shops where you could grab a quick bite to stash into your lunch bag if you were too busy to cook, are getting bigger and beginning to provide seating.
The changes might be superficial, Dr. Case said, but most people basically want the same things.
"I think that once you get to know people, it turns out that (you) are more alike than different," Dr. Case said. "But it's the differences that define us. Differences are what you notice."
One major difference the exchange students noticed is in transportation. In European and Latin American countries, the population is used to walking and riding the bus as their primary modes of transport. Not so in the United States.
"This country seems to assume that you have a car to get around," said Ms. Svedlund, who takes the bus from College Station to Daniel Village and then walks the rest of the way to the ASU campus. All three students have had to rely on someone to take them where they want to go and are self-conscious about bumming rides.
The time the students have spent in the United States has given them new perspective on a country that at one time seemed completely foreign to them, and they'll take that perspective home to share with friends and family.
"I can have my opinions now," Ms. Svedlund said. "And if people will say stuff that I don't agree with or haven't seen (in America), I'll be able to put in some truth. Because I hate it when people have opinions and they have nothing to back it up with but magazines and television."
Ms. Reyes put it this way: "I think that everybody should have the opportunity to go somewhere else and see that the world is a lot bigger than you think."
IRINA MELNIC, 17
From Calarasi, Moldova
Irina spent the 2004- 05 school year as a sophomore at Greenbrier High School. She wanted to come to the United States because she really liked her second-grade English teacher, who was American, and thought that all Americans were like her.
"I still think that," she said.
She thought that she would find a free country where everybody could do whatever they wanted, but she found that it actually was stricter than her home country, at least for teenagers.
She cited the 11 p.m. curfew in Columbia County, the drinking age and the lack of teen dance clubs.
As part of the 4-H FLEX program, Irina had to compete for a scholarship that would allow her to come to the United States. She also had to attend orientation classes and demonstrate a proficiency in the English language.
She said that her country is so small and poor that one out of five people leave it to work and don't just commute across the borders. Her father lived in Portugal while he worked a construction job to earn enough money to build his family a new house. At a different time, her mother went to Italy to take care of the elderly. While they are home, her parents are beekeepers.
After Irina goes home, she hopes to show people a little bit of American open-mindedness. She hopes to come back and study psychiatry, and then make her home : "I feel like my place is here, like this is my country," she said.
ANTONIETA REYES, 28
From Valencia, Venezuela
Antonieta "Toni" Reyes is a sophomore majoring in c ommunications at the University of South Carolina Aiken. She is minoring in Spanish.
"I know it's cheating," she said, but explained that at least for one hour a day, she gets to speak her native tongue. She acknowledged she has to study Spanish literature and history, so it's not a complete cakewalk.
Unlike the other exchange students, Ms. Reyes had a better idea about what to expect. She lived in California from the time she was a year old until her family moved back to Venezuela when she was 9.
Because her earliest memories are American ones, "Some of my thinking is very American - very problem-solution and very pragmatic." When she is home in Venezuela, she seems very American to her peers, but in the United States, she seems very Venezuelan to the American people.
She enjoys parties, but not necessarily American ones.
"Parties are very different," she said. "Parties here are food. Sit and eat. At home, parties are dancing. You have drinks and finger food. But the whole point is dancing."
Ms. Reyes appreciates the opportunity to learn another culture.
"Being in another country gives you an awesome opportunity to learn," she said. "And you have to be very open-minded and very tolerant, because you are going to see things that you never thought you would."
IDA SVEDLUND, 24
From Vasteras, Sweden
Ms. Svedlund came to Augusta in January as part of the exchange program between Augusta State University and her home college, Mid-Swedish University. She chose Augusta State over several others because she thought she'd like the warm climate in Georgia. And she did. She returned home in June.
She is majoring in journalism, and works for her hometown newspaper as much as she can. Ms. Svedlund said she writes, takes photos, does layout - a little bit of everything, because it is such a small paper.
While in Augusta, she was struck by the prominence of religion in the United States.
"At home, people hardly ever mention being religious, because if they do, they are questioned or looked at as being weird," she said.
She described her roommate as being very religious, saying prayers before she eats.
"That is a big culture shock," Ms. Svedlund said.
She was equally struck by how close people in America were willing to get to each other. She cited an argument on the bus between two people who didn't know each other. That is something she never would have seen at home.
She said it's easier to make friends with people in America. The climate in Sweden often is dark and cold.
"We run from our cars to our apartment, and we don't look at anybody; whereas here, you kind of try to be polite all of the time. Which is nice. I really like that. I'm going to try to keep that up when I get back," she said.