I spent 28 years in the USA’s Northeastern region, and the last 8 months in 14 other countries within Europe and Asia. While I think it’s a pretty great place to be born in, I was never one of those die-hard Americans who believes our nation is the be all and end all of everything. I’d like to think of myself as somewhat well-adjusted and culturally aware. However, I am realizing more and more as I spend time away from home that I am quite American, whether I like it or not. The subtleties of it are still making themselves known to me. And while there are plenty of obvious differences between me and most Indonesians, it’s only now that I’ve spent two months in the United Kingdom that I’m really seeing how different we are from, well… everyone.
I have felt a bit like a sponge for the past eight months – soaking up the perspectives of the people I meet and sitting with those ideas for days, weeks, or months. To the rest of the world, being American has a whole lot of connotations that aren’t all positive. To me, it’s conflicting – I love my country and I also have trouble with a lot of things I’ve discovered since leaving it. I am aware that I’m coming at this from a perspective that doesn’t define a whole nation – we are certainly a diverse bunch. But, bear with me as I examine what feels un-American about my experience thus far and how it’s impacted my thoughts on my home country.
I forgot that people are not always from somewhere else. The other day I was sitting down to breakfast with my boyfriend’s family and was asked about my background. “Well… we’re Scottish, German, English, Australian. I just found out about a bit of Irish decent. And there’s something about Barbados in there according to my dad.” They were all fascinated and I started to ask the return question, but remembered that not every country is a melting pot like the USA. People have lines back ten generations in the country in which they live. It’s that assumed diversity that I’m so accustomed to. As Americans, we’re all mutts – we’re all a special mix of ingredients. It’s why when my mother visited a month ago, when asked “Where are you originally from?” she said “Germany” assuming they were asking about heritage. But heritage isn’t really on people’s radars like it is in the US. You’re from where you are, generally.
We think we have the keys to our own destiny. I’ve noticed in my travels that whenever I meet another American that we have a greater need for control than most other nationalities. Perhaps it’s because our country is a bit of an only child – we think we’re pretty special and we’ve been telling ourselves that for a long time. Most other cultures have a bit more flexibility in their attitudes towards travel, closer proximity to other countries, and a lot more vacation time to spend exploring the world. Americans seem to want to control their own experiences and, therefore, will only take in what they want to experience – it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t allow for those eye-opening moments many people seek out when they leave home, but I suppose it makes sense given how little time off we get and how far we have to go to get anywhere foreign. However, I think there’s a lot more xenophobia in our culture than I realized. It’s kind of ironic to think about, given how diverse we are as a nation, but at some point, we became quite insular, I think.
Not all countries are in such political turmoil. When admitting where I’m from, I’m the first one to make a sarcastic comment about our gun-slinging cowboy culture. I feel a bit of embarrassment about it, but I guess it’s all in the spirit of the stubborn independence that made our nation what it is. So it’s a bit hypocritical for me to pick and choose which parts of that independence I support. There are plenty of countries that don’t make their presidential elections like a bad reality show. And not every hot-button issue is riddled with bipartisanism like we have in the USA – some things don’t have to be politicized. Crazy concept!
There is no style to our speech. This is just my personal opinion. But as someone who speaks in the Standard American Dialect, I’ve grown to quite dislike my own accent (or lack of accent, depending who you ask). I feel like I’m annunciating every syllable without the finesse that I hear in other people’s words. I wish I, at least, had a bit of a Southern drawl to give me a bit more style. As a result of my months here, I’ve developed a case of the Madonnas. I hear myself saying things in the Irish way or using phrases I’ve never said previously. It’s more confusing than I would’ve expected to be speaking English all the time, but not American English.
Real communities still exist. When I left to travel, I was pretty convinced that the “kids on my block” concept I grew up with disappeared with the internet. That now, instead, kids are just playing Warcraft together virtually, but in physically separate houses. However, I stand corrected. Most places I’ve visited internationally have a sense of community so ingrained that I even feel awkward wearing headphones anywhere in town. People talk to strangers and it isn’t dangerous or awkward – it’s a genuine neighborly kindness. Whenever I meet a friend of my boyfriend’s family here in Northern Ireland, they have always read my blog and know my story. They know who had a cold last week and which of their neighbors are on vacation. It’s comforting to see that this is still a thing, because I was worried that it wouldn’t exist by the time I have my own children.
People still have trades. I come from the land of the Bachelors of Arts where kids go to university to study any subject and get a degree, but most students have no idea they want to do afterwards. In most parts of the world, you choose a trade, complete your studies necessary to do it, and then do it for the rest of your life. It isn’t a moral question. It’s just what you do. Whenever I explain that I quit a good job to travel and “figure out what I want to do,” I get a lot of surprised looks and the occasional “why would you do that?” Many people are retired at age 50 with a pension here. The idea is so un-American, as I think of that age as your prime years to become a CEO. I’m still trying to get my head around having so many years of retirement. The word has barely come up with my parents, who are in the 65 year old range and working harder than ever.
By the same token, quality of life is the goal. As Americans, our typical pace is unsustainable and completely exhausting. From conversations I’ve had, it’s been made clear that people from other countries often look to the American way of life and say: what’s the point? If we’re working 60 hours a week, when do we have time to enjoy the fruits of that labor? On a two week beach vacation? If anything, those two weeks are spent trying to recuperate and forget about life back home more than actually relaxing and enjoying the place. Now that I’m out of it, I see it a lot more clearly and I see that there are other options. As they say – the more money you make, the more you spend. It’s had me thinking a lot about the way I hope to organize my life going forward to maximize my time and money, while not forgoing the things that have become so important. I need a job, like… yesterday, but that doesn’t mean I need to jump back into the rat race blindly.
People aren’t so hung up on their stuff. Houses are smaller, nights out aren’t as common, clothes aren’t always name brand. Instead, we sit down to a good quality home-cooked meals every night. We drink brandy and port by the fire and have a nice chat. The people who do have that materialism that I am so accustomed to from home are called “posh” or maybe some meaner version of that. There is more appreciation for the fine things that people do get and they are sure to share it with others if possible. People don’t have the same “I deserve this” mindset.
In other countries, people read the world news. They know about things that are going on outside of their home countries. And we aren’t talking Fox News “news”. I am the first to admit that I’m terrible about this. I tried to make a habit of skimming CNN or the New York Times website on the way to work every morning, but since I’ve been on the move, I’ve fallen out of my routine of keeping up on the latest world events. Perhaps this avoidance directly relates to the xenophobia I mentioned above – we settle into blissful ignorance quite easily; Or maybe it’s a general disinterest, but keeping up with the world news doesn’t seem like a choice to most other people I’ve met in other countries. Just an observation.
The need to be original and cool isn’t really a factor. I’ll never forget the conversations that went on standing outside of my freshman dorm at New York University. People would try to out-weird each other’s music taste, naming the most obscure artists they could think of. It was so boring to listen to, but that competitive hipster mindset is what I grew up with and I’ve unintentionally been feeding into it for my whole life. Maybe it’s only a Northeastern thing, but people have a tendency to be secretive about liking mainstream stuff. You have your guilty pleasures, but those are … guilty. I’ve noticed that there isn’t the same snobbery in other countries. People accept the music on the radio more readily. A movie I think of as extremely corny and unoriginal is something another person might openly love and not feel shy to admit. It makes me feel pretentious and kind of mean – it’s something I’m trying to retrain in my head because it seems like needless negativity now that I’m away from it.
We don’t travel. Combining the hundreds of people I encountered between Europe and Asia, I could probably count the number of Americans I met on just my fingers and toes. Where is everyone?! Every other country had serious representation – especially the Swedes, Germans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. I wish I ran into more Americans out on the backpacker trail but, because I didn’t, I had the unique opportunity to surprise people. I tried to work against the stereotypes the other countries have of us. I tried not to be what they expected – loud, disrespectful, and self-involved. But honestly… I have no idea if I succeeded in that. In Vietnam, I did meet an American in my hostel dorm, a San Francisco solo traveler named Greg. We became fast friends and went to the Cu Chi Tunnels together outside of Saigon on a tour group. We were required to write our nationality on a list and we both looked at each other – should we admit that we’re American while we’re touring a Vietnam war site? We were the only two and it was quite uncomfortable. We kept quiet and I might have tried to add a few “eh’s” into my words to make them think I was Canadian. Sometimes it’s better not to tell everyone where you’re from.
My takeaways from all this are a bit conflicting – it’s our competitive nature that keeps us cutting edge and exciting, but it’s also making us quite selfish and isolated. It’s our demand for greatness that keeps us working towards big, lofty goals, but that also has us missing out on the simpler things. It’s our diversity that makes us so special, yet I rarely run into other American travelers in other countries. Perhaps the thing that’s resonated with me most is the feeling that we have a lot of things we could improve on. And while I don’t know how to do that singlehandedly, I figured sharing my observations to some fellow Yanks couldn’t hurt.
Categories: Travel Philosophy