My first week of living in London as a study abroad student was met with learning about the British grading system, riding the red double-decker buses and convincing a Londoner that she, in fact, had never been to the United States.
I was at a nightclub in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of London, enjoying my night and was taking break to wash my hands in the ladies' room. As I went to grab a paper towel, I said, "Excuse me," to the girl next to me so I wouldn't have to reach over her. She whipped around with her hip wide-framed, non-prescription glasses and stringy long blond hair and in the Queen's English asked me, "Where are you from?"
"Chicago in the United States," I easily relayed to her.
Her eyes glowed with recognition. She fully understood where I was coming from. Or so I thought. "Oh, I've been to the States. I went to Arizona last year. Didn't really like it."
I sort of chuckled, thinking about how different Arizona was from the Midwest and, to be more honest, from every other part of the continental United States. "Well...that's not quite the same," I said, drying my hands on the paper towel.
"I thought it would be better," she added. "I'm not a huge fan of the U.S. anymore"
Insulted and a little shocked that she would make that sweeping claim, I just left the conversation as is. I wanted to tell her was that she had never been to my America. That the country was too vast and too diverse to be judged based on one state.
But to the girl, I might have represented the whole of America. Currently I am one of thousands of U.S. students spending my semester abroad in her country. In the 2012-2013 school year, according NAFSA, an organization that promotes international education, 53.3 percent of U.S. study abroad students selected Europe as their study abroad destination. Among all European countries, the UK is the most popular.
Yet in my mind I'm easily distinguishable from other American study abroad students. I didn't get why she couldn't see that we were all distinct.
The very next day my friends and I hopped a train to Scotland for a weekend trip. We had a mutual friend who was studying abroad in Edinburgh and the train tickets were cheap, so of course we thought a trip up north was necessary. With little to no knowledge of Edinburgh and, to be honest, the rest of the UK, I watched as the swarm of Londoners in gray trench coats scurrying toward the Tube was replaced with old churches in the middle green pastures and century-old cobblestone roads.
I was in the same country, but it had a completely different feel. And in that moment, I felt like the girl from the nightclub. From my vantage point, the UK was only characterized by London. Though the city of London's population is greater than all of Scotland that does not discount other UK cities' importance. The people I encountered in Edinburgh were more nature-oriented, relaxed and took the time to give you directions. Through each encounter they painted a new portrait of the country I was studying abroad in.
So like I wanted to tell that girl that one night that she had never been to America, I too have not yet been to the UK. How dare I say I studied abroad in the United Kingdom without actually visiting the whole of the country? I would only expect someone visiting America to do the same before passing judgment.
So for the 80,000 U.S students currently choosing to live abroad and learn in a new university, I suggest that we actually travel the whole of the country. Staying in one city or traveling to all the countries around it will not do your experience justice. America is more than just Arizona and I'm just beginning to realize the UK is not just about London.
Therefore I'm going to continue traveling this country until I finally feel comfortable saying that I have actually been to the UK.