Americans are proud of our status as the world’s only superpower, so it’s rather surprising that so many of us are apprehensive about stepping foot outside the country. It’s kind of ironic that while we’ve never been more powerful as a nation, our citizens have never been more fearful about venturing overseas.
Actually though, the chances of becoming victims of anti-American hostility while abroad are about as high as getting struck by lightning here at home, and what you gain from getting outside your own backyard and seeing the world for yourself is, like the credit card ad says, priceless.
This past summer, I joined dozens of students (including many from Northern Kentucky University) traveling to London on the very day bomb attacks rocked the British capital resulting in over 50 people killed and many more injured. We were part of the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad’s month-long London Summer program, and none of us knew for sure if what had happened in London that sad day was a one-off event or the start of a campaign of daily violence.
But in the days that followed, things settled back into something approaching normalcy, and we took our cue from Londoners determined to live their lives as they were used to, and in so doing, deprive the terrorists of their power.
I was teaching a course on the history of London, and as we visited historic sites, we confronted the disasters that had threatened the city’s survival in the past. We studied catastrophes like the Black Death which killed off half the city’s population in the 14th century and the Great Fire of 1666 which incinerated four-fifths of the city in a three-day inferno.
Those calamities put London’s current crisis in an historic context, and we felt privileged to be witnesses to – and participants in – the latest example of Londoners facing up to a challenge, determined to insure the survival of their ancient city.
Meanwhile, my American students and I encountered not only the British but people of many nationalities visiting this truly international city. Out of all the conversations in pubs, on trains and in other chance encounters, we gained insights into how the rest of the world regards America; views that are almost impossible to gain here at home. And you can’t step outside your own culture like this and not spend time reassessing what it is to be an American and what we might be doing differently to change for the better the perception that many in the world have of us today.
What’s reassuring is how friendly the vast majority of foreigners are to individual Americans and how welcoming Londoners were to us, glad that we hadn’t been scared off by the terrorist attacks and pleased that we were not letting terrorists deprive us of the experiences that can only come from going abroad.