As someone who was raised by immigrant parents and has traveled abroad multiple times in her life, I am acutely aware of the average American’s geographic and cultural ignorance. This shouldn’t be a surprise to most people; after all, it is a subject of self-deprecating humor on late-night talk shows. We seem to be aware that the Average Joe can’t differentiate Iraq from Iran and thinks all Asian food comes from the same place. We laugh at him and take comfort in the fact that we know our Pad Thai isn’t Chinese, thank you very much. But are we really much better?
There’s a trend in the way Americans tend to lump places together. Ask any sorority girl who’s traveled abroad, and she can probably tell you about her fun times in France, Spain and England. But if you mention anywhere east of the Rhine, she’ll probably look at you with a blank stare. Eastern Europe is one singular entity to most Americans, as is the Middle East, East and South Asia and the entire continents of Africa and South America. The typical “well-traveled” American can tell you a lot about Western Europe, but the rest of the world — the world that’s less industrialized or too foreign — is just clusters of similar-sounding countries.
Western Europe has appeal; I understand that. It’s foreign, but not “too” foreign. French, Spanish and German are common languages to pick up in school. Americans traveling abroad can get the foreign appeal of old cathedrals and different foods, all with the comfort of Wi-Fi and American television networks. For those who don’t travel, most world history classes focus a lot on Western Europe — you can become either a Francophile or an Anglophile without leaving your classroom.
The biggest problem with this ignorance about the world outside the North American-Western European sphere isn’t that it exists; it’s that most Americans refuse to educate themselves about the rest of the world and will shut down when someone tries to inform them.
When I was in high school, one of my classmates — a relatively bright and ambitious student who was part of the Model United Nations team — was telling the teacher that Croatia and the rest of former Yugoslavia were part of Asia. Because I am, in fact, half-former-Yugoslavian and I have, in fact, been to the former Yugoslavia every other summer for most of my life, I raised my hand and politely told her and my teacher that no, all parts of former Yugoslavia are part of Europe, thank you very much. This was met with a “Well, it depends” by the girl and a “Oh, well maybe Model UN does it differently” from the teacher. Even as I continued to explain, I was shut down by the girl (who now goes to FSU — go figure).
If you are not aware of something and someone who does know tries to inform you, the correct response is to listen, accept the new information and learn — not shut off the person and insist you're correct. For some reason, most Americans take this approach when it comes to expanding their geographic and cultural horizons. No matter how many times I tell people that Croatia is in Europe, and Singapore is not part of China, I am met with a defensive “Well, how was I supposed to know that” and then a shutdown, a refusal to incorporate the new information into an existing system.
I like to keep positive, however, because it is not so hard to fix this problem. Just listen and learn and keep your mind open, because the world has a lot more to offer than your preconceived notions of it.
Petrana Radulovic is a UF English and computer science senior. Her columns appear on Thursdays.