Egyptian scholar on American stereotypes

By REEM ABOU ELENAIN

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Before I came to the United States, I was warned about being stereotyped. I was told something along the lines of “expect the unexpected.”  When I came here, I found that most people ask good questions and are genuinely interested in knowing more about my country. However, some of the assumptions and questions were amusing. In Egypt we apparently “still have ancient Egyptians” (whatever that means) and we don’t have planes, vehicles or roads (I came to the US on a flying carpet). We also commute by camels, while in reality, the only people riding camels in Egypt are tourists. Lastly, my personal favorite, we “walk like an Egyptian.”  I get surprised by people’s thoughts, but I always remind myself that Egyptians back in my country must have stereotypes that may be shocking to Americans. I certainly had some stereotypical ideas about the US before I came. Here are some of the things that I didn’t expect to experience here.

People in America don’t speak solely English.

I’ve heard Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and countless other languages being spoken in different cities in the US. Shop signs reflect that too. Many of them are written in languages other than English and that left me sometimes wondering whether I am really in the US or in a completely different country. Speaking of English, I have spent years trying to speak “correct” English. When I came here I heard people making so many “language mistakes” that made me question what “correct” English is.

Americans are not as racist as I thought they’d be.

Except for airports, I rarely felt discriminated against in the US. I walk around wearing hijab and most of the time I forget that I “look different” or stand out. I do get stared at from time to time but beyond that, nothing bad happens. I have traveled to eight different states in the US and I’ve never heard a single derogatory word. In fact, the majority of the people I’ve met are friendly, and I feel welcomed wherever I go. With the exception of airports.

Big cities?

When I think about what a city would be like, I think of New York, Philadelphia or maybe San Francisco. I did not expect to see a city like Meadville. I hardly see anyone walking down the streets, and during “rush hours” six or seven cars can be seen in the streets of Meadville. I was told that I had to get outside Meadville to “see the US” but others told me that by living in a city like Meadville, I have experienced what the US is like because it consists mostly of cities like these or even smaller.

Everything else is big.

Big portions, big flags, big cars, big flags, big shops, big flags and big stores like Walmart.

Walmart!

A shop where you can buy anything and everything! As an Egyptian saying goes, you can buy everything from a needle to a spaceship. Maybe you won’t find a spaceship there but I think you can find everything you need to build one in Walmart.

Excuse me! I’m sorry!

Personal space is cherished here, which is nice but I find it funny how it is overdone sometimes. I’m at the bottom of a staircase and someone is at the top of it. “I’m sorry,” the person at the top would say. Sorry for sharing the staircase? I walk across someone in a corridor. “I’m sorry,” they would say. What are they sorry for?

Guns.

Many Egyptians, including myself, think that all Americans carry guns around. The thought sends chills down my spine. Some Egyptians, e.g. my parents, think that people in the US shoot each other on a whim or just because they don’t like one another. Despite the fact that many Americans own guns, the latter image is not quite true. Yes, there is violence, but the US is not a war zone. In fact its streets feel safe because of the strong enforcement laws.

As I have been staying in the US for about eight months, I’ve learnt more about its people and culture. The stereotypes that I had about the US were replaced by what I’ve experienced in reality. The same is happening to people meeting me and asking questions about my country. However, old stereotypes are wiped out and new ones start to set in. To many people, I am the only Egyptian they’ve ever met. This would make me the new stereotype. It would be easy to think that all women in Egypt are veiled, educated and speak English for example. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I always remind myself of that example whenever I start creating my own idea or “new stereotypes” about the US. I haven’t seen enough or experienced enough of the country in order to form a generalized idea about the whole nation. I certainly know more now, but it’s not enough.