On my first trip abroad, to London, I spurned t-shirts and shorts in favor of skirts and scarves in an attempt to look British. I started saying “biscuits” instead of “cookies” and “trousers” instead of “pants” and “dodgy” instead of, umm, whatever it is that dodgy stands for. I was pleased when customers at the pub I worked at would tell me they thought I was English… you know, until I opened my mouth and started mutilating their language with my Western New York accent.
It’s not that I didn’t love my country.
It’s just that, well, being an American wasn’t exactly the coolest.
I was like the teenager who loves her parents, but would really rather they wait at the curb to pick her up from the party at the popular kid’s house. You know, because the minivan kind of smells like goats. (This is just an analogy, mind you, not a true story taken from my adolescence. Okay, so maybe my parents’ minivan did smell of goats, but, I assure you, I never got invited to any parties at the popular kid’s house.)
The older I’ve gotten and the more countries I’ve visited, the more I’ve come to appreciate my American roots — just as the teenager who gets older and learns to appreciate her parents (if not the minivan… or the goats).
I’m still not the best American.
There are lots of famous places in the States I have yet to visit – I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore or any of the largest balls of twine. Despite having lived in Washington, DC for two years, my knowledge of how the American government works has been entirely gleaned from songs in Schoolhouse Rock. I don’t keep up with American current events and only watch news shows if they’re on Comedy Central. (Wait. The Daily Show is a news show, right?)But I am proud to be an American.
Even if being an American still isn’t the coolest.
After all, everyone says we’re fat and loud and don’t travel much outside of our country. And, when we do get up the gumption to go overseas, we show up wearing socks with our sandals.
It makes me angry when I hear people talk smack about Americans – even if there is the teensiest grain of truth in what they’re saying.
Maybe we are fat, but that’s just because we have so much wonderful food in our country! (I mean, I’ve mentioned pretzel M&M’s, right? How about coconut M&M’s? And peanut butter M&M’s? We have three times more types of M&Ms than any other country in the world – of course we’re going to be three times bigger than the people in other countries! This is just the way math works!)
Maybe we do speak kind of loudly, but that’s just because we take the whole “freedom of speech” thing pretty literally.
Okay, and maybe we don’t get out of our country much, but, I’ll have you know, those people wearing socks with their sandals are totally Canadians.Despite the bad rap, Americans have a lot of good qualities.
(And by “qualities” I don’t just mean “snack foods,” okay.)
So, in honor of the Fourth of July*, I give you five of them**:
(*Yes, I realize the Fourth of July was a few days ago. While I may have been born in the United States, my sense of time was born somewhere in Brazil or Argentina or one of those countries where it’s perfectly acceptable to show up three days late to a party.)
(**I would have done a top ten list in keeping with my theme this summer, but I told myself I was only going to focus on the people and not on the food. Once you take M&Ms out of the equation, it kind of levels the playing field a bit, if you know what I mean.)
1. We believe that we can all be rock stars when we grow up.I’ve been teaching off and on for the past twelve years, which means I’ve had the pleasure of asking students “What do you want to be when you grow up?” about a twelve gabillion times.
The first time I asked this question I was teaching at a Japanese high school in a rural fishing village. I was shocked when my students responded with practical, reasonable career aspirations, like anesthesiologist and nurse and postal clerk.
Didn’t these kids know their teenage years were supposed to be focused on unrealistic expectations like growing up to be rock star or falling in love with a vampire or, you know, getting a date for the prom despite smelling suspiciously of goats. (Again, an analogy, people. And, no, I never went to the prom. Thanks for asking.)
A couple years later, I was volunteer teaching at an inner-city school in Buffalo. When I asked the students the same question, all the boys told me they wanted to be Kobe Bryant, while all the girls informed me that they were planning on becoming ballerinas or dolphin trainers.
That’s what I’m talking about, my friends.
Americans may be big.
But you know what else is big?
And, sure, many of us will grow up to have our dreams replaced with more practical aspirations. (You know, when we find out that a career in dolphin training requires actual, real-live dolphins… which happen to come in short supply in Buffalo.)
But some of us will keep on believing that we can make our dreams come true – no matter what our parents or teachers or the casting directors at America’s Next Top Dolphin Trainer might tell us.
And, as the kids say these days, that’s pretty awesome-sauce.
2. We lie like it’s our job.Growing up in America, you never realize how much Americans lie until you go overseas and you meet people who are more than happy to tell you that you look fat today.
The truth is that Americans lie all the time.
And, despite the fact that we know everyone’s probably lying to us, we still choose to believe what we hear.
“Those pants look great on you.”
“Omigosh, you look so skinny. You should totally eat more ice cream.”
“You’re single? No way. But you’re such a great catch!”
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
Those are all the lies I’ve told myself in the past ten minutes.
And I believed every single one of them!
Why do Americans lie so much, you ask?
Ummm, better question: why don’t other countries lie more?
I mean, lying is the best!
Not only does lying make you look like a nice, thoughtful, considerate human being, it also makes the person you’re lying to feel better about themselves. And, in turn, the person you just lied to will probably say something equally nice and untruthful to you, like, “Your hair looks amazing today. I love how all that frizz really frames your face!” or “Seriously, you look like you’ve lost ten pounds. Don’t make me force feed you this ice cream!”
And so continues the cycle of lies.
Until, that is, you move to Asia and everyone tells you that you look fat today.
3. We over-share.In Japan, I worked with people for three years before I found out pertinent personal information like their educational background, their marital status, and, umm, their first names.
Meanwhile, in America, it’s not uncommon to share your entire life story with girl working at the drive-thru window. I know because I used to work at a drive-thru window. And, let me tell you, I heard a lot of dirt. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a blog back then because the whole world would know all about the time you cheated on your boyfriend with that rodeo clown.
Sometimes, the American tendency to over-share can be a bit unsettling. On my first trip back to the States while I was living in Japan, the clerk at the Walgreen’s regaled me with every intimate detail concerning her recent bout of gastrointestinal problems. When she grimaced and ran off to the bathroom, I was surprised that she didn’t drag me along with her to provide me with a little physical evidence to back up her story.
But, usually, quite frankly, I love it when people tell me their stories.
I do want to hear about your husband and your kids and, yes, please, I want to see pictures.
You have thirty-eight cats? Tell me more!
What’s that? The rodeo’s in town and you happen to have something for rodeo clowns? Just wait a second while I grab a pencil and some paper so I can write it all down.
I’m a storyteller. I love telling stories, but I also love listening to them. Plus, by listening to you blab on about your life story that means afterwards I get to blab on about my life story. (By the way, you might want to borrow my pencil and paper to take a few notes.)
4. We know how to party.Should you have never met me in person, you may not realize this, but there are actually two of me. (And I’m sure you thought it was scary enough with only one.)
You see, first there is Everyday Sally.
Everyday Sally has a job and speaks in complete sentences. Everyday Sally dresses rather conservatively – almost to the point of prudishness. She doesn’t own shorts, and it has to be a million degrees out before she’ll wear a tank top in public. Everyday Sally can be reserved in front of people she doesn’t know and would rather give herself a root canal than talk to boys.
And then there’s Party Sally.
Party Sally is loud and overbearing. Party Sally has been known to show up in a coconut bra. Party Sally has a repertoire of dance moves that Beyonce would be jealous of. (Or so Party Sally tells herself.) Party Sally will flirt with anything that moves – including that battery-operated Santa Claus doll that dances to “Jingle Bell Rock” every time you clap your hands.
As you can imagine, it’s really best if Party Sally stays indoors and as far away from the general public as possible. (Trust me. Party Sally has managed to slip outside a few times over the past couple years, and the results were never pretty.)
Luckily, Americans are all about the house party. We know that the key to a good time is opening up your home to your friends so they can be rowdy and ridiculous in front of people who know them and love them… and will forgive them when they spend the night vomiting in the bathroom sink.
Unfortunately, the house party hasn’t really caught on in any of the other countries I’ve lived in. In Asia, it’s quite uncommon to have parties in your home. The only house parties I’ve ever been to have been ones thrown by fellow expats living here. In Brazil, I went to a few house parties, but they were usually family events or children’s birthday parties, where it was considered rather inappropriate to show up in a coconut bra. (But you can’t blame Party Sally for trying, now can you?)
5. We work hard, we play hard.I’ve seen the statistics on how few Americans travel overseas, and I just don’t get it. It’s not just because statistics involve a lot of math, and I kind of suck at math. (Okay, so maybe all my math skills were also picked up from episodes of Schoolhouse Rock.)
The thing is I’ve met lots of Americans overseas – like, most of the foreign people I meet are Americans. The majority of my coworkers and friends in Japan were Americans. I met a handful of expats while living in Brazil, and all of them were from the States. While I was volunteering in Southeast Asia, most of my fellow volunteers were American. In Chiang Mai, a lot of the people I met who were living and working there were Americans. Even now, most of my coworkers in China are either Americans or Canadians. (You can tell the Canadians by the socks they’re wearing with their sandals. Ha, ha! Just kidding. You can actually tell them by the maple leaf flags they have sewn on to their backpacks – I’m pretty sure that’s a Canadian law or something.)
Maybe it’s true that Americans don’t travel overseas much, but, from what I’ve seen, there’s a whole lot of us working, volunteering and living overseas.
I suppose it’s just our American work ethic at, ahem, work. We can’t just show up in a foreign country and lollygag around – we feel like we have to be doing something.
While everyone else is backpacking through Europe or going on gap years in India or beach bumming across Thailand, we’re renting apartments and finding gainful employment. While all the Europeans are drinking rum and Cokes out of plastic buckets, we’re going to bed early so we can wake up for work on time. Everyone else is dressed in coconut bras, and we have on sensible shoes and business casual attire.
We’re like the teenager who stays home on a Saturday night studying for her English exam instead of partying it up at the popular kid’s house. (Again, just an analogy. I aced that English exam, by the way.)
So, yeah, being an American is not the coolest.
In fact, it’s pretty nerdy.
But, you know what, that’s okay with me.
After all, I may not be the best American.
But I am pretty good at being a nerd.