Sunday, February 8, 2009

Being American Abroad...

My friend Peter over at the Buddha Diaries wrote a lovely piece on what it has meant to him to be an immigrant American citizen for the past forty or so years after moving from England. It was really intriguing, thoughtful, and it made me think that it's about time for me to write about my experience as an American abroad. So here's what I've noticed so far in some necessarily frank words.

Before I left, I made sure I knew how to say, "Γειά σας! Εμαι απο τον Καναδός," which means, "Hi! I'm from Canada!" I would rather not have been associated with the Bush atrocities. Then in November, I started humming a different tune as the whole world rejoiced with me over the election of Barack Obama. Suddenly I wasn't ashamed to be an American. I didn't feel the need to lie about where I was from.

Still, the reality is that I haven't exactly been accepted with open arms and trumpet heralds. My best friend whom I always travel with here actually IS from Canada, and when we introduce ourselves he is greeted with smiles and raised eyebrows. I, on the other hand, am greeted with a sort of telling smirk. I'm tolerated around here, but not always happily. They don't think I know any Greek, so when we're done introducing ourselves and they're talking to each other, I often hear the words "βλάκα" or "ξένο," which mean "stupid" and "outsider." To be honest, I don't think people like knowing I'm from America. It's really disheartening.

Why is this? Well, I think it stems from a few things, but it helps to put things in chronological context. America really is an infant of a nation. We have about two hundred years worth of history to speak of, and those years aren't necessarily filled with courage, moral uprightness, and good deeds. We started settling this nation by slaughtering the Native Americans, followed up by slavery. Since then, we've had lots to be ashamed of. Stepping in WAY too late in WWII, Vietnam, the Cuban embargo, the Cold War, not to mention all the recent events under the Bush administration which are too many to mention individually. I know there are ways to justify every event on that list from an American perspective, but outside perspectives aren't as forgiving. They tend to frown upon these things.

All of the countries over here, on the other hand, have histories that go back thousands of years in most cases. And they feel very attached to those histories. They don't see themselves as individuals within a country, they view themselves as part of a cultural legacy which has seen the rise and fall of empires. They lived through Caesar, Hadrian, Nero, Jesus Christ, the Ottoman Empire, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. Not to mention everything they have to be proud of: Aristotle and Plato, Beethoven and Bach, VanGogh and Monet, John Paul II and Mother Theresa. It's ridiculous.

Here's a simile that I often use when trying to think about my place as an American in this country: America is like a loud, headstrong college graduate trying to be authoritative in a group of well-established people. We're always trying to tell people what to do, forcefully trying to be right, always wanting to be the loudest, always having all the answers. And yet, we never stop to realize who we're talking to and the experience which informs the opinions and decisions of our peers. Can you imagine how annoyed you'd get if the new kid on the block kept trying to tell you what was the right thing to do when your country INVENTED GEOMETRY?

Still, age isn't always an indication of wisdom. We as Americans often times have great ideas, amazing innovations, and insightful opinions which are valuable in the global community. Being young has its advantages. We don't have set traditions, so we're free to do things in new ways. There's a certain beauty in that. The key, I think, is to be humble about it and defer to the experience and authority of those who have gone before us. It's the middle path, the road between blind courage and reserved wisdom, that we need to learn to travel.

As for me? I plan on being as gracious a visitor as I can be. I've always been a fan of changing stereotypes, and I intend to do that once again on a global scale. I'll continue to say I'm from American when I get to know people and then be as polite as possible. Maybe it will help, maybe it won't, but at least I'll be doing my part to change the American perception abroad.


Mozart said...

Nationalism. A dangerous thing, no?

There's a student from Sweden in my WGST class. I thought it would be interesting to see how he responded to the cultural difference in America. Well, he's made it quite clear what he thinks about us hicks here in Missourah. He's appalled by how little we care about our appearances (why can't we be more like people in Los Angeles? they really know what it's about!) and he says that, as far as male body image goes, there's "much more competition, of course" in Sweden. He never speaks unless directly called on, and he spends all of his time sulking in the corner, looking bored and surly. So now my initial impression of Swedes isn't a particularly good one, since Mr. Cool here hasn't proven to be the best ambassador for the country.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that it's not fair of me to judge all of Sweden by one idiot, just as it's not fair for anyone else to judge any individual from his or her country's reputation. We can't choose where we're born, obviously, and we've got to take that into account when meeting "foreigners." Your Greek pals' attitudes are much more a reflection on their own superiority complexes than on America's shortcomings, I think. So now can you go around saying that all Greeks have overinflated egos and are judgmental jerks? Or that they hate change/learning and will put progressives to death? Sounds fair to me...

Mozart said...

And another thing, because this is bothering me and I have nothing better to do on a dreary Sunday afternoon:

These particular folks to whom you’re talking didn’t, I assume, personally invent geometry. Nor did you, for that matter, personally invade the Middle East. So in that context, what do they have to be proud of? Nothing. And what do you have to be ashamed of? Again, nothing.

And, as you say, America does have many fine accomplishments. Don’t take it for granted. I am, I’ll admit, hopelessly ignorant of world politics, but I’m certain that the good ol’ U. S. of A. isn’t quite the big bad bully it’s often chalked up to be. So wear the badge of American Citizen with both pride and humility—be willing to learn and admit flaws, but hold onto your identity and don’t deny the good that comes from your birthplace. Like you said, maybe you can change some opinions as a good representative of your nation.

Anonymous said...

I get what youre saying about America, but every country has a history in arrogance, war, and oppression.

Even while living in Hawaii- a state belonging to the U.S.A - "Outsiders" are still regarded with mistrust or prejudice. Bumper stickers on cars declaring "Free Hawaii".

The occasional hate crime occurs because "mainlanders" are not always liked. And in some cases its no big surprise... how islanders operate, how they think, clashes with the rest of the U.S.

In fact some locals dont view Hawaii to be a part of the states at all, even though by law it is.

In conclusion I like what Mozart has to add. There are difference in cultures, in countries, how laws are executed or even created... but fundamentally there are a lot of similarities.

In some cases you have to look far back in history to see that all of mankind has been quite capable of creation and destruction.

-Lady A