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I had just arrived in Vienna after an overnight train from Germany. After checking into a youth hostel, I was finally ready to tour the former capital of the Hapsburg Empire. Like many Americans, I'd heard plenty about the rise of Austria's scary neo-fascist leader, J”rg Haider, and as an obvious non-European, I was slightly apprehensive about how I would be received by the locals. Sure enough, while touring the Hapsburg palace grounds, with my beat-up camera in hand, I passed a group of tall young men. One of them noticed me and scoffed, "Look at these little Japanese with their cameras." Austrian racism at its finest? Not exactly. The group consisted of Americans, and these loving words were said, not in Wienerdeutsch, but in good ol' American English. And their utterer was of South Asian descent. I might have been forgiven for not wanting to come across any more Asian Americans after my run-in in Vienna. Instead, this incident reminded me of a sad truth that many students visiting Western Europe have observed: the near absence of non-white Americans traveling there. True, there are reasons for this relative paucity. For one, non-whites are less well-off socioeconomically and so tend to have less disposable income for luxuries such as travel. Many Americans with family in Latin America, Asia or Africa would rather spend their hard-earned savings visiting relatives. Furthermore, Europe does not symbolize only "civilization" and "culture." To many -- and not just non-Europeans -- the continent also carries heavy historical baggage: colonialism, slavery, discrimination, persecution and mass murder. These reasons are understandable, but they alone cannot explain why I could count on one hand the minority Americans I encountered in six weeks across the Atlantic. Why, then, the overwhelming whiteness of Americans in Europe? Especially when there is so much to learn from countries superficially similar to the U.S. -- such as Britain, France and Germany -- yet with distinct societies and cultures? I suspect that the answer lies in the insular, American-centered world-view of many educated blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans. Ironically, although the discipline of ethnic studies has devoted increasing attention to "diaspora" issues, few U.S. minority intellectuals have shown much awareness of, let alone curiosity in, minorities in Canada and Western Europe. By focusing narrowly on conditions in the U.S., these folks reinforce that most ethnocentric of beliefs: that "America is the world." Such arrogance causes them to generalize, assuming that, say, West Indian blacks in Britain or North Africans in France face exactly the same sort of injustices as their counterparts here. Worse, they miss out on the chance to make real, substantive comparisons between the U.S. and other Western nations, ones that go beyond the usual stereotypical jibes about smells, personal habits or movies. Sometimes it is Europe that comes out looking worse. Many Americans would be shocked to learn that most countries there do not consider native-born non-Europeans automatic citizens. France, for instance, does not allow children of North African immigrants to apply for citizenship until age 18. Whereas I once condemned this practice as racist, I now understand that the U.S. is unusual in guaranteeing citizenship to everyone born on its soil. But the fact is that minority life in Europe often compares favorably with that in the U.S. Despite the existence of ethnic enclaves -- North African "suburbs" in Paris, Turkish "ghettos" in major German cities, Pakistani neighborhoods in London or Leeds -- I witnessed far more interaction across racial lines than I did back home in Philadelphia. Even in the U.K., with its racial and immigrant tensions, it is not uncommon to find ethnically mixed groups of young men or women, or couples. In Amsterdam, a city known here mostly for marijuana and '60s-style free love, I felt completely comfortable for the first time I can remember. Never mind that I speak poor Dutch or that I didn't know my way around. None of the passersby, waitresses or punks seemed to care in the least about where I, my half-Surinamese friend or her Chinese-Dutch boyfriend "come from." Of course, the Netherlands has its social problems, but I would never have believed that there was a place where locals -- white Europeans at that -- were simply not interested in my origins. And I would never have imagined I could have so much fun explaining American politics as a representative of the United States -- not until this summer. Being in Europe taught me a lot about the U.S. and about myself as an American minority. I hope the gentleman who insulted me in Vienna learned as much from his stay as I did.

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