02/28/2013 10:38 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Oh, Beautiful American Girl!


During the first week of January, I went on a nine-day trip to Shanghai with my classmates. The goal of the trip was to learn about environmental issues and sustainability in China while being immersed in a new culture. While I was there, I did a home visit with a girl who lives on the outskirts of Shanghai. I ate dinner with her family, exchanged gifts, and talked about the differences between China and the U.S. It was nothing short of a fantastic experience, and a few weeks ago I emailed her to thank her for her hospitality. She replied back, and this is the text of the email in entirety:

We are very glad that you come, first contact with foreign friends, have received not attentive place please excuse, your gift really good-looking and delicious, thank you! Must have the opportunity to come to your country, free often contact. Oh, beautiful American girl!

It's fairly understandable, as far as translations go. But the last line of the email got me thinking: "Oh, beautiful American girl!" It made me think about how I, as a 17-year-old American girl, am perceived when I travel abroad. After all, I'm not the only one observing something that is unfamiliar. The local is just as curious about the traveler as the traveler is of the local. The clothes I wore, the way I acted around my friends, and the way I talked influenced others' opinions of all Americans in general; for several of the people I met, I was the first American that they had ever come in contact with.

The families and people that I met in Shanghai had more or less the same conception of the United States: a country of economic prosperity, happiness, and physical beauty. People took pictures of me and my friends wherever we went; they were enraptured by us and the country that we came from. Their love for America is not too misguided -- the U.S. is a great place to find opportunities. But I've found that Americans and the "American Dream" have been improperly glorified overseas. The issues that we face at home: homelessness, access to health care, unemployment, were irrelevant to people who dream of two-story homes and white picket fences. These dreams, however illusory, are not to be condemned. For many of these people, it is what keeps them going, that perhaps their hard work can propel them towards America and all she represents.

To Yuen Yuen, the 11-year-old Chinese girl who hosted me, I am a beautiful American girl, a concept that she probably picked up from Katy Perry or Teen Vogue. If she wants the California of sun-kissed skin and Daisy Dukes, I'll give it to her.