Faithful Representations of a Semi-Simple Group

06Dec06

The operating principle of theoretical physics in the past half century has been symmetry. The language of this operating principle is group theory. An abstract mathematical group acts linearly on a set of particles as a ‘representation’ of that group. Faithful representations preserve the subtleties of the abstract group. (Semi-simple groups are reducible, i.e. they are direct sums of simple groups.)

Americans have a reputation (perhaps muliple) around the rest of the world.

As an American student abroad, one cannot help but be cognizant of this. However, what’s slightly more subtle is the cognizance that one is representation of this reputation. Is one a faithful representation (see definition above), an anomaly defying expectations, or even a paragon to challenge stereotypes? What colors the way one approaches expatriate life? What causes us to behave differently, even if that only means remaining militantly the same?

My observations of extremal behavior of American expatriate students. (Artistic license has been taken, any similarity to actual people is coincidental.)

  • American-in-a-bubble. Travels 3500 miles over the Atlantic ocean to live the same life that they did in the states. Surrounded by American university friends and aided by American television (conspirator: YouTube), refuses to acknowledge undeniable signs that Toto, this isn’t Kansas anymore. Refuses to look right when crossing the street. Don’t put him/her behind the wheel of a car, it’ll only get ugly. Speaking of which…
  • Ugly, but well meaning, American. Sometimes American’s aren’t as evil as they seem. They’re just naive. Somewhat difficult to distinguish from the American-in-a-bubble, this specimen attempts to ‘fix’ all of the ‘strange’ things about the U.K. Whether it’s keeping stores open past 5 p.m., slathering chips in ketchup, or insisting that the department Christmas party should be the departmental ‘holiday’ party, the nuances of cultural differences are a bit lost. People like this don’t realize it’s not a compliment when people repeatedly ask if they’re American?
  • Intelligent American. A moment’s thought will suggest that the sample of Americans studying abroad would be slightly higher achieving than the rest of the bunch, though the laws of statistics do apply and there’s some variance. At any rate, once in a while there is an American student who doesn’t need someone to explain to them that Ireland is a different country (yes, a different country) than the U.K. These Americans usually don’t realize that it is a compliment when people repeatedly ask if they’re Canadian.
  • The Subtle American. An oxymoron? There are those whose instinct is to fit in with the natives. Can you blame them? It’s embarassing when people ask if you’re American. These Americans have taken to the sport of picking up English accents, if not English companions. There’s more, however, to being English than to-mah-toes, a faux-hawk, and eating wheatabix. There’s an entire culture of discreet subtlety regarding the weather, class, and privacy that real Britons can spot long before one utters off a rehearsed crisp ‘t’ or dropped ‘r.’ Yes, there are a few American anglophiles who truly become adopted citizens of Britain. But these are indeed few and far between. Perhaps Bill Bryson was one of the last ones.


4 Responses to “Faithful Representations of a Semi-Simple Group”

  1. At some point, Sherlock Holmes, speaking of Americans, express the hope of becoming one day reunificated under a single Republic of the United States and Great Britain. I can not remember the exact place, perhaps in the Sign of Four.

  2. 2 american dudette

    Sorry if I am so rude. I just think this is a little bit overdone. this whole american bit. americans abroad. people crack on americans cause they can. because americans have toxic shame adn maybe some other things too. they let them. and americans can absorb that kind of thing. I think that is pretty cool. I just think we should look deeply. so keep up your inquiries. why not. andhwo cares what people like me say anyhow.

  3. Fair criticism, Dudette — though much the post was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek (admittedly not very well done).

    Before leaving for the UK I had a long conversation with a friend of mine who spent a year living in Europe during his undergraduate years. He is the type of person who is not afraid to be outspoken and described some moments when this got him into heated arguments with people on the train. This included a memorable story where another passenger told him he should be ashamed of being American, to which he stood his ground and said that despite his reservations about this-or-that administration, he is proud of his citizenship and the ideals that it stands for. It sounds like his experience ended up very well. When he was voting absentee for the 2004 election, his acquiantances in Italy came and urged him to vote with them in mind, tell him that he was their voice in a decision that had implications around the world.

    The point is that there are labels that go along with any group of people. Any nationality, race, gender, religion, whatever. But being a part of a country whose international influence is as strong as the US makes, I think, being American a bit different. In a country that touts democracy and freedom, the actions of its government reflect upon its people. One can understand the reservations that other people might feel when the foreign policy of the US has direct consequences on their own lives, and the frustration that so few Americans seem to take an active role in their democracy.

    There is also the definite American stereotype held by Europeans (honed in by decades of American tourists): the idea that Americans know little of the world outside their own borders. To some extent, one should temper this with the realisation that the US is rather far away and rather large.

    There’s another angle to this that I’ve noticed. While the “American melting pot” may be a bit of 1980s idealism, it is true that there one would be hard pressed to describe what a “typical” American looks like. What color is his/her skin and hair? What is the shape of his/her face, nose, eyes? Without the shorts, sunglasses, and bright Hawaiian t-shirt (again, tongue-in-cheek), it is hard to identify a “typical” American until he or she says something in a “typical” American accent. I realised this on a recent trip to London, when people I met would show a bit of surprise when I said something and they realised I was from the states. (Noting that I wasn’t white, they then proceeded to ask where I was “really” from… but this is a different matter.)

    Anyway, the point that I’m trying to make is that the combined effects of the influence of the US on the rest of the world, the perception of Americans being generally ignorant of the rest of the world, and the fact that Americans can remain “hidden” under the guise of different ethnicities leads to a unique perception of American citizens abroad. This perception is, I claim, different from that of other visitors. Further, the realisation (or lack thereof) that this perception exists leads to different ways of adapting on the part of American students.

    So I think there’s a little more to it than others cracking on Americans “because they can,” and I think the ways that American students abroad carry themselves is significant in that light.

  4. Also see: “Ten reasons to be proud you’re a stupid American,” on Lonely Planet. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/bluelist/index.cfm?fa=main.viewList&list_id=3072



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