Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Proud to be an American?

There's something I need to fess up to today, something that's been growing inside for a while now but wasn't completely obvious to me until Saturday.  I am guilty of being somewhat of a self-loathing American.  I don't mean this in the literal sense, only that ever since we left life in the US, my perspective has grown and changed in a way that has actually brought me to lie about my nationality on more than one occasion.  Coming into contact with so many different people from just as many places has deepened my criticism for my own country, and already having a critical outlook as it is, my view of my homeland began taking on a tint of embarrassment.  Do we really need a fast food restaurant every three and a half feet?  Is it really necessary to have everything delivered?  And do you really need to shop at Walmart at four in the morning?  I have developed an aversion to excess in some ways, but I believe one incident, in particular, is partly to blame for this larger shift in attitude.

We were visiting Ireland with a couple of friends our first fall living overseas, when upon asking in which direction could we find the town center, we were faced with a rather rambunctious local demanding to know where our "I Love Bush" T-shirts were and why we weren't carrying around little American flags.  What was this guy's problem?  This was my first encounter with someone stereotyping me because of my nationality, and I had to hold back from arguing with him that I hadn't even voted for Bush, because honestly, it didn't matter.  Living in a place where some people used graffiti to tell me to go home nudged along my desire to disassociate myself with the "typical" American and blend in as much as I could.  This is where it began, my attempt to de-Americanize myself, if you will.  Am I proud of this? Absolutely not, but I think in attempts to show other people, mostly European but not all, that I am not, in fact, the loud, arrogant, entitled, and spoiled American that has earned us such a reputation, I started to look at where I come from in a different light, one that included some shame.  You think just because I'm an American I expect to be catered to?  I'll show you!  I'll clean up my own mess, and yours, too!

It is necessary to say, however, that I have never forgotten the fact that I am endlessly fortunate to have been born in the United States of America, especially given that I am female.  There are sadly few places in the world where a woman can pursue higher education, career, and family if she wants, and with the freedom to walk about without fear of persecution for it.  I'm aware of how lucky I am to be from a nation that symbolizes freedom and opportunity, but I'm not naive enough to believe that's all the US is.  There is corruption everywhere.  I consider myself a realist, able to appreciate that which should make a citizen proud of their birthplace, and a little disappointed with its shortcomings at the same time.  There are people all over the world who still dream of visiting America, as I've learned most people call the US outside of it, and this has got to say something about where we stand in the world, short-comings and all.  

The problem seemed to be that I allowed my focus to linger far too long on the parts of being an American of which I am not proud, and have actually found myself in conversations where a non-American was telling ME why America is so wonderful.  Had I really gotten this bad?  Had I been so worried about embodying the stereotype that I'd become ashamed of part of who I am?  (Am I really putting this out there?)

We went to Frankfurt this past weekend for the International Book Fair held there annually.  What was during the week a trade fair for all things books, a meet market for publishers and artists, alike, turned into a public show on the weekend.  Author interviews, readings and discussions, and new technology demonstrations accompanied the rows and rows, halls and halls, floors and buildings of books for everyone and everything under the sun.  We went, we looked, and we bought books.  It was heaven, especially when we discovered Hall 8, an airplane hanger-sized hall full of English language books and materials.  But the most interesting few hours we spent at the Frankfurt Book Fair happened over coffee inside Hall 4.1 beside the non-book vendor stalls where we had been browsing through things like notebooks, journals, and various book accessories.  What began as an excited gesture on my part when another woman was looking at her purchase, a gorgeous hand-made leather journal I had just been drooling over, soon turned into a lengthy and invigorating discussion.  At first she just looked at me, perhaps a little confused, and smiled.  It became clear to the entire table beside the drink stand what I'd been gesturing about when Chris handed me my very own gorgeous-hand-made-leather-journal, secretly purchased while I ordered our coffees.  I think I kind of squealed before kissing him thank you, and the people around kind of laughed.  So that's how our conversation began, two strangers excited over a couple of books.  

And so we began talking, we three, and even though the seats around us emptied and refilled with new people several times over, nobody realized just how fantastic a conversation we were having.  When four hours can pass by without anyone noticing, THAT'S a great talk.  They did, we didn't, and it was.

Her name is Nicola and she's a PhD student living near Frankfurt, though she comes from a smaller town in the country.  A simple chat about where everyone comes from and the differences between Germans from different regions easily flowed into a discussion of attitudes toward foreigners, learning new languages, living as foreigners in Germany, and the degree of truth in most stereotypes.  Nicola has yet to visit the States, but has hopes of doing so in connection with her studies, and later, profession.  Her sister has traveled to a few places Stateside and brought home with her stories of people who weren't sure if Germans had phones and microwaves, let alone where it's located.  This was several years ago, but I'm fairly certain there are places in the States where the knowledge of places beyond our national borders doesn't exist.  Although the world seems to be growing ever smaller and more accessible, not everyone cares to know about other cultures, and most don't have the resources to visit them, anyway, so why bother?  I like the idea of learning about other places, trying to understand foreign customs, and tasting life elsewhere; this is why we are so appreciative of our ability to travel.  I don't understand the kind of thinking that prevents people from wanting to explore, given the opportunity, and I'm actually related to a few.  One part of travel Chris and I have been noticing more and more is the human connections we make along the way, and this, too, was one topic we discussed with Nicola, of many.

As is common among Europeans, when there is talk of war or military of any kind, the conversation invariably revisits WWII.  And why shouldn't it, I suppose, since 70 years isn't so long ago when you live in a place with a history that stretches beyond America's young 200 years?  Many of the scars left by that era are still sore, and understandably so, but it's in talking to the younger generations who live only in its wake that conversations such as this can roll out across a table with such an eager desire to learn from the mistakes from the past.  I imagine this might be more difficult for someone who lives with personal memories of something so awful as WWII was, but what do I know.  While my mind was already preparing to shake my finger at my own country, Nicola talked about how Germany wouldn't be what it is today had it not been for the USA's involvement in WWII.  If it's going to be between the US, Russia, and China, she said she's glad it was the US.  She told us about an elderly neighbor of hers who's told her stories of his encounters with American soldiers during the war.  Upon his capture, the man was sent to live and work in a camp quite unlike those Hitler had built around Europe.  Those captured and brought here were fed and given shelter, but what surprised him the most were the parties.  Soldiers and for lack of a better word, prisoners eating and drinking beer together, laughing and relaxing like friends - this was unheard of.  He said one evening a high ranking officer walked into one such gathering and asked what was going on.  Instead of unloading on his soldiers and kicking the prisoners back to their barracks, he sat right down and grabbed a beer for himself.  What a thing!  

Friendliness, hospitality, and a willingness, if not eagerness to help is apparently very American, and as I thought about this notion I realized how true it tends to be.  Images of Katrina flashed through my mind, as well as those from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.  Whereas Nicola's experience as a German has always been that people are hesitant to talk to you until they know your status (title ranks higher than money), I know most Americans to be rather curious about people from other places, which tends to carry with it an openness and friendly touch.  (Of course introducing fear into it changes things.)  I hadn't thought of such qualities as being typically American, but the more I talk to non-Americans about their interactions and views of my people, the more I realize I've been rather hard on them.  Perhaps it's my need to beat one to the punch, to make the joke first to prove I get it so there's no question.  This habit goes right long with my secret need to prove I'm intelligent, the source of my self-esteem as a kid.  Regardless of the why, I'm realizing now that Americans aren't just known for wearing athletic shoes and baseball caps while chewing gum (there's one stereotype), or behaving obnoxiously and expecting to be catered to (there's another); we're also known for our kindness and friendliness.  The United States is a place where someone can seek political or religious asylum, or where a person of absolutely no means really can do anything given they work hard enough for it.  This isn't something many countries can boast.

I guess what I find the most interesting about all this is that it's taken the perspective of other people not from the States to remind me of what I have to be proud about.  There will always be things about the culture of the States I don't like, policies with which I do not agree, and decisions behind which I cannot stand, but what remains the same is that I'm free to my thoughts and opinions, and I have the privilege of keeping them.  So maybe I need to stop focusing on how I don't want others to see me because I'm an American, and start focusing on demonstrating the great diverse pool of experiences, perspectives, opinions, and belief systems that is the United States of America.  It may not be perfect, but there is a lot of good going on, and plenty for which to be grateful.

Thanks, Nicola.


  1. AMEN to that! I too, have my issues with being American. Imagine adding to that the issues I have with being German and you begin to understand SOME of the angst! Americans aren't perfect- who is - we are self-centered, arrogant and bumbling igorant idiots abroad all at once. But we are nice. Nice counts for a lot in my book. I'm doing my best NOT to categorzie my friends by nationality anymore. Because honestly, Lindsey, otherwise I would have thought 'great, another American with the military' (another big issue with me!) instead of 'wow, she is really nice and sweet and fun and....well, a friend, and a great person, no matter WHAT her nationality!

    Great piece. May have to steal from it at some point! (But I'll let you know first!)

    You were/are able to write it without all the snide comments and negativity I put into it. See, I pick on the Germans too. And I am tryin really really really hard to forget about stereotypes and NOT to judge based on nationalities. REALLY HARD SOMETIMES! BUT I am TRYING, TRYING, TRYING.

    THanks for the remind!

  2. It's totally cliché to say it, but it's what I think: there is no black or white. It's not America good, world bad - or vice-versa. There are so many layers on both sides, even of the stereotype. And beyond the stereotype, we are individuals, not nationalities. I believe that the best you can do is get out there and find out all you can. The stereotypes are often not wrong, but they're not the whole truth.

    Also I want to add that even amidst my own antipathy towards America, I am forced to recognize every day that I am inherently American. That's where I grew up, those are the people who raised me, I can be nothing else. It colors my views of everything. But that's okay. I meet new people and experience new things which color those colors and I am left a rainbow of flavor!

    Haha there I said what I thought without a single specific example - or rude remark!

    It's a good thing to think about, Lindsay. Don't stop there.