Times Square New York
Travelling to the United States as a Danish student
The United States of America. The world’s most influential country when it comes to politics, culture, technology, economy and so on. The third biggest nation regarding population and the fourth biggest nation regarding land area. The land of the free and God’s own country is it often called. Fifty states with completely different history, culture, ethnicity, laws, climate, landscape and people. It holds some of the most urbanized and modern places on earth, and at the same time the most desolate and conservative parts on this planet. An extremely wealthy nation with high poverty rates. A well-integrated country with huge racial tensions. A frontrunner of peace and democracy, though still with the biggest military and one of the lowest voting rates. It is indeed a country of huge contrasts and differences, but especially two cities are making this giant superpower run smoothly. The first objectifies it, and the other rules it. The first functions as a heart, and the other functions as a brain. It is the biggest city and the capitol; it is of course New York City and Washington D.C. These two incomprehensibly important cities were exactly those my class and I was heading for Tuesday the 17th of March 2015. And our trip to the US, which lasted for around 10 days, is indeed what this blog post is going to deal with.
Expectations and first impressions
As a first time traveler to the US, I still felt like knowing a lot about the American culture. Through media, school, music and-film industry, I have grown up with two different presidents, learning about a divergent political and society structure, listening to Rihanna and watching Friends. However, going to the US, would add a completely new dimension to my self-perception of the country that I already knew so much about. I think that the two main factors, which drove my expectations to the trip, was the fact that we were travelling with an educational purpose, and the fact that I am a Dane.
First travelling with an educational institution provides you with background knowledge and areas of focus before you leave home, and second it gives you the opportunity to visit places, like the UN headquarters, embassies and even a high school. This gives the trip a whole new perspective and understanding to what you experience than if you were only visiting for vacation. It gave my class and myself a more critical, but also a broader view of the US. Being Danish also played a role regarding my expectations, because Denmark is such a small country, with such a different political structure than the US. My classmates and I were so excited going to walk on Times Square, watch the New York skyline and go shopping in the countless amount of stores and malls. We expected everything to be bigger and the opportunities to be endless, and damn, we were not going to be disappointed.
Arriving late in the evening in Washington Dulles International Airport, we were all very tired and drained of energy, but driving into Washington D.C., seeing the lit-up Lincoln Memorial and US Congress, made me realize that we had landed in one of the most influential cities and countries of the world. The next morning, we took a walk down the streets and avenues of Washington. Seeing the countless numbers of Starbucks and fast food restaurants, busy men in business suits, and the enormous pickup trucks and yellow caps, we had no doubt, that we had arrived in the United States.
A more extraordinary feeling applied to the meeting with New York. Closing in from a distance seeing the massive wall of skyscrapers getting closer, and the Statue of Liberty greeting you from Liberty Island was almost a breath-taking experience. We were finally here, New York City. That evening we took our first walk on Times Square and Broadway. Watching the bright lights from all the massive TV-screens, theatres and stores made it look like it was still day. Seeing the thousands of smiling and fascinated people taking selfies in front of the iconic Coca Cola sign made it absolutely clear that we had come to the stronghold of capitalism and consumption, but at the same time the stronghold of opportunity and belief in prosperity.
Travelling to the US as a Dane and a European, I had a lot of prejudices about the American people, and especially on our visit to Bethesda Chevy Chase High School these prejudices were put to the ultimate test. In every classroom, the American flag hung on the wall as it also does on almost every street corner and avenue in both Washington and New York. This patriotism also shows up in the teaching, where the US is portrayed as an invincible figure in history class. In IB English, the students did not pay attention to anything the teacher said, and no one could answer simple questions about a classic romantic poem they were reading. In Crime Investigation Class, (Yes it is a real class) we learned how to solve crimes and murder mysteries. The students and the teacher asked me, how different it was visiting an American school where the educational level has such higher standards than in Europe. One student even asked me if the Danish state allowed me to own my own things. Later in band class, some of the students, which I accompanied, did not really felt like playing their instruments, so instead they headed outside to smoke some weed. Before we left the High School, the headmaster finished of saying that this particular High School was very privileged, and not every educational institution in the US has such fine grades and leaving certificates. If this is the best the US can offer, I am afraid to see the worst. Still this meeting with the American education system and youth will definitely last long in my memory.
Talking about a more positive scale of cultural differences, Americans are generally very friendly and helpful. Talking to a stranger on the street or at the diner is seen as perfectly normal, while in Denmark you would have been viewed on as a freak or weirdo. I think this natural form of being open-minded and greeting is lying deep down in the American self-understanding and way of living. It is indeed something that a country like Denmark should try to adopt, or at least be inspired by.
Another, and probably one of the things that American culture is best known for, is its food culture. One of the things you learn when you are visiting the US, is that the term “American food” is not only including McDonalds and steak houses. American food literally means every kind of food from all over the world. On our visit, I ate at both an Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Vietnamese, French and Italian restaurant. The opportunity of getting something to eat is endless. In addition, I think this reflects the American dream and the US as a melting pot quite well. Even though, the last decades has made the US look weaker, and their beliefs look paler, the food culture still symbolizes the eternal diversity and thereby prosperity that the US offers and has. There are many different opinions and standpoints about the US as a nation, but the spirit of fortune and happiness is still to feel when you walk down Broadway’s crowded streets, or when you admire the facade of the US Congress.
Looking back at the trip, I have got myself a bag full of fantastic memories. Visiting the UN headquarters, The US Congress, Ground Zero, museums and the Danish embassy has been an informative and inspiring experience. Watching a musical on Broadway, go shopping in the countless stores and standing on the Top of the Rock, watching New York at night has been truly amazing. Feeling the different cultures and speaking another language has at times been challenging, but instructive. However, what I will remember this trip for is not only what I saw and experienced, but also how the social relationships were strengthened collectively in the class. A stronger bond was created between both students and teachers. And this is exactly what also emerges while travelling. You have to stay around the same people for 10 days in a row, and therefore you must work together, make space for everyone and be tolerant. I could say many bad things about the American society to end this blog post, but instead I want to thank the United States for creating a stronger community in our class, and making the best study trip ever.