Reading American Works from Afar


I came all the way to Sweden to take a course about American writing. It seems counterintuitive I know, but I had my reasons. Upon receiving the syllabus for this class, I realized some of the texts were ones I had previously studied in high school, and at Boston College. But the reason I didn’t groan or drop the class was that I was interested in seeing my own world, through this Swedish perspective.

The class focused on how writers represent themselves as Americans. A few week’s into class, we read Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston (a great book by the way if you are looking for a good read). My Swedish professor helped us analyze the text, and then we started having a discussion about the author’s definition of “American-feminine.” As we talked about the subject, my professor turned to me, asking me to comment. It was in this moment that I realized that I was the only American girl in the class, and one of the only two American students total. As I struggled to define American-feminine for myself, I realized that I had never actually been asked to do so. I realized that at home, I took my position as a feminine American for granted. It was in a room of students from all over the world, that I first felt this disconnect, an otherness of sorts.

Being a red haired, blue eyed, freckled, Irish, Catholic, English major at Boston College, I think it’s fair to say that I have rarely, if ever, been in a real minority. And it got me to thinking about all of the students at BC who come from all over the world, from innumerable backgrounds, and as often as we try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes there really is nothing like experiencing it for yourself, even to such a small extent. I left the class still unsure how I would go about defining my own self in terms of my American-ness.

Being an “other” feels like sitting at a formal Swedish ceremony and not being able to laugh along to any of the jokes made during the speeches, or take any of the advice given about the semester ahead, because you can only pick up a spare word here and there like “thank you” and “welcome.” It’s being the only person at a table full of Swedish students, and not knowing a word to the drinking songs, or being able to follow along in the song books for that matter. And when having discussions about politics, race, religion, health care, education, and any other matter big or small at your kitchen table, it’s feeling like no one quite understands your perspective or sees the world the way you do, the way you had always taken for granted.

Though these might be small examples, for me it has been stepping away from my majority life, and stepping into an occasional minority position that has helped me to start exploring who I really am. What does it mean to be American-feminine I wonder? And what does it mean to be Swedish-feminine for that matter? And when forced to consider what it means to be an American girl going to Boston College, how will I define it? I have to think that it is in these moments where we are forced to see our own perspective as different from that of the majority, that we learn the most about ourselves, and being far from our comfortable BC home doesn’t hurt the process.


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