The United States As Seen From a Distance
Monica: “Passport, check! Camera, check! Traveler’s checks, check!”
Rachel: “Who are you saying ‘check’ to?”
Monica: “Myself. You know, for remembering to pack a thing. You know, you do a good thing, you get a ‘check!’ My mom does it. I never realized it was weird.”
Whether it’s a phrase used within a household, a word that’s only used regionally, pronunciation in an accent or customs that are part of everyday life, it is easy to normalize the things we’re surrounded by. We take for granted that everyone knows what we’re talking about when we name a familiar restaurant or a place around town. Bubbles form within communities separated by race, socioeconomic status, beliefs or hobbies and it can be surprising to discover differences when we’re reminded to step outside of those similarities and comfort zones.
Growing up in the United States there was no shortage of national pride. I cheered on my compatriots religiously during the Olympics, ate macaroni and cheese, drank from red and blue Solo cups, joined a sorority, used the word soccer and have eaten more than one pizza with pineapple on it. In school I learned every year about how we won our freedom in the Revolutionary War and what a crucial role we played in winning WWII. Slavery happened but it’s over now which is great, no mention of Japanese internment camps and we skimmed right on past the Vietnam War. Every morning, I dutifully stood, placed my hand on my heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance:
“I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America.
and to the Republic
for which it stands
with liberty and justice for all.”
It was easy to take everything at face value, and so, I did. No questions asked.
When I met people from abroad it was (and is) easy to talk celebrities, politicians, TV shows, movies, music and more. And I can usually do it in English. Our pop culture has a massive reach and cultural references are widely recognized and understood. The rest of the world learns some basic US History and hears about us in the news and all over the internet. Honestly, a lot of people from outside the US know more about the government than I do. This reinforcement has made it easy for us to stay so self-centered.
I ironically chant “USA!! USA!! USA!!” when making fun of the United States because eventually I have grown to learn how ridiculous it is that we think so highly of ourselves. As I met more and more people from different countries I began to realize that the way we view the United States from the inside isn’t how most other countries view themselves from the inside.
Nobody else feels the need to put other countries down in order to aggressively assert how great they are. Being proud isn’t the same as being better. But our schools and society have told us that we are #1 for as long as I can remember. Is what I have learned to be patriotism, in fact, really nationalism? Doesn’t robotically reciting a pledge to your flag every morning have a creepy nationalistic vibe to it? There are obvious extreme examples of nationalism, racism, all of the various “isms” that we can point to and say, well, I don’t think like that so therefore I am not a part of that group. But aren’t we learning that the spectrum isn’t quite so straightforward? Just because you’re not an extremist doesn’t mean you can’t and don’t still fall on the same side.
Traveling in 2015 was a constant barrage of questions and jokes about the political situation in the United States.
The absurdity of Trump running for President was so hilarious and so outlandish that merely entertaining the idea was embarrassing. There was no part of me that disagreed but I simultaneously felt the need to go on the defense. That attention, however, only continued to add fuel to this notion that we were still the center of many conversations and headlines. But why wasn’t I asking about what Italians think of Berlusconi or how Colombians feel about the Peace Deal or Korean’s take on their division? Was it that I didn’t know enough? Or simply that I didn’t care?
Once Trump won I was worried (well, for many reasons, but as it pertains to travel) about losing my status. Despite the smirks and jabs over the past year, having a US passport was a valuable asset. Border crossings were never a hassle which was always a relief. Many people’s eyes still lit up and the sound of my accent and loved talking to me about pop culture or beautiful places they’ve visited or dreamed of visiting in the US. But now, I wasn’t sure how I would be received.
As it turns out, it didn’t matter. The joke of 2015 had become a reality and it was no longer funny. Every country has their issues and I was met with empathy rather than animosity. Despite what they’re supposed to be, as many nations already knew and what I can attest to, is the fact that governments and media do not necessarily represent the people.
When you start chatting with people from other countries you realize – wait, 10 days of PTO isn’t normal. There isn’t any legal obligation for companies to give paid paternity leave. Not normal. Being taught that you’re better than everyone else- not normal. Deciding that your country, out of ALL the 33 countries in the Americas, is going to use the adjective American to describe only people from United States – not normal.
Being number 1 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Student debt, medical debt, incarceration rates, gun violence and Covid cases aren’t a point of pride. The internet broke in 2016 from people trying to move to Canada and I found myself doing some digging on information on obtaining Korean citizenship more than once this past year. It is also a well-known dream of mine to obtain EU citizenship for bureaucratic reasons. But even with the roller coaster of emotions and the various losses throughout the past few years, at the end of the day, I still want to be a citizen. I still want my right to vote and my say in a country with traditions and memories that have helped shape me into who I am today. At times I feel helpless from so far away. I feel guilty for not being home amidst of all the change that we’re fighting for. But we don’t have to be only one thing. I can be proud of where I am from while simultaneously recognizing that I am happier living elsewhere. I can still be a productive citizen without having to be on the frontlines.
Seeing how things like healthcare work in other countries it is hard not to get frustrated with how broken our system is. The successes in response to the global pandemic in some countries makes it difficult to understand why it had to turn into such a polarizing issue in the US. But I also appreciate the value in things I used to take for granted like certain freedoms or clean and available drinking water. The comparison game is never going to get me anywhere, though. What I’ve learned the most is that there isn’t only one way to do things. Think of how many ways there are to cook a potato and how delicious all of them are with the exception of tater tots. Is it too aggressive to call tater tots the genocidal dictatorships of the potato? We don’t want those.
Culture shock is a bitch but learning to live and appreciate how others live has been invaluable to me. The work-life balance in Europe, the music and the passion in South America, the food and the mindset of letting go of what I can’t control that I took from SE Asia and the laid back attitude in Australia have all been important changes I’ve learned and tried to incorporate more into my lifestyle.
Similarities are what bring us together but they’re also what set us apart.
Not only is that ok, it’s essential. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s hard agreeing on an appropriate time to eat dinner or what the term “arriving on time” means and it’s really hard agreeing on values and politics. The United States has a history of deciding what other people need or want and then trying to make that happen, no questions asked. It has been a humbling lesson that it isn’t my way or the highway and it is a constant struggle to listen before I spew my own thoughts. I need to have a conversation instead of giving a speech.
There isn’t always a right answer and nothing is ever perfect. For me, taking a step back and trying to see myself and my country from a different angle has (I hope) given me a better understanding of the larger picture. For so long I thought I had to act as a sort of ambassador. People could meet me and think, oh, they’re not all fat and ignorant and want to build a wall. I put this pressure on myself to represent something when in reality I was trying to be exactly what I am asking myself not to do- generalize. I represent myself and my own experiences and beliefs but I cannot and should not speak for anyone else.
In reality, this entire post is a generalization and only represents my own point of view. Take it with a grain of salt but hopefully we can all stop and reflect on what we think and what others think too. We’ve come really far but we’ve certainly got a very long way to go. This is only the beginning.