Learning to be a Cultural Ambassador

As I approach the end of my Fulbright-Schuman experience and time in Brussels, I’ve been taking some time to reflect back on it. I applied for Fulbright knowing it would be a challenging and rewarding experience, but I have been surprised by what has been the hardest parts. The two main requirements of my grant are to complete my proposed research project on radical right-wing populism and, like all Fulbrighters, to act as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. I thought the research challenge would be more challenging, and that representing the U.S. abroad would be easy enough. It turs out being a cultural ambassador has been a more difficult and interesting challenge than I had originally imagined.

My first weeks in Brussels gave me a taste of this challenge. Around three weeks after I arrived, Las Vegas experienced the largest mass shooting in American history. Europeans struggle to understand a number of aspects of American culture, but there is a special confusion about guns. My colleagues were confused and asked me why the U.S. allowed it to be such an issue. Not understanding gun culture very well myself, I stumbled through an answer. Being American in no way means you understand every current of American life, and I was beginning to understand how this would define the challenges of my Fulbright experience.

IMG_6341
IMG_6166

This issue came to a head at a party I attended in early November. Brussels is a city where there are just as many people passing through for a few months as permanent residents, and conversations inevitably turn to where you’re from and why you came to Brussels. A few times that night after explaining how I moved to Brussels from Chicago, other people at the party told me I was not what came to mind when considering a typical American. I asked what they thought a typical American was, and they told me someone who only speaks English and isn’t very open to the rest of the world.

IMG_6893

IMG_6893

I completely disagreed with this idea. These statements, to me, seemed to reflect a portion of America that has been highlighted in the 2016 election and its aftermath. Nonetheless, the U.S. is a remarkably large and diverse country, and such blanket categorizations can’t accurately reflect American life. The challenge for me in explaining this is that I can only really draw upon my own experience of American life. Every American’s perception of the U.S. is formed by a unique combination of experiences and aspects of their identity. As such, I find it really difficult to speak for America as a whole.

A large reason why I find these issues of identity and cultural representation so interesting is that they intersect really well with my research. For the past six months I’ve been studying radical right-wing populist performance in European national elections. These parties consistently put cultural identity and xenophobia at the heart of their campaigns. In a sense, I’m studying the European version of what colors so many negative perceptions of the U.S.

IMG_6922

This relationship I’ve found between my research and parts of American society has helped me navigate the difficulties of cultural ambassadorship. When faced with negative perceptions of the U.S., I still bring up America’s size and the diversity that comes along with it. Now, though, I also try to focus on connections between problems faced in the U.S. and Europe. There are certainly a lot issues that seem particularly American or European. But if my Fulbright experience has taught me anything, it’s that more often than not these issues have a relative on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

– Alex Jarman, 2017-2018 Fulbright-Schuman grantee