The One Dance I Can Do Well

After writing the entry about my visit to the U.S. embassy the other day, (yeah, I know, I’m posting these at the same time, but I sometimes write these things on my computer at home and don’t get a chance to come to the internet café and post them until later) I was thinking about what it means to be an American. Also, Angela is taking a class on American culture, so I had to think about what it meant to be American to help her with a presentation on an aspect of American culture or values. I suggested “pride plus embarrassment.” I thought that it would provide for a nuanced discussion about many facets of American-ness in the 21st century, but then I realized that basically no one in her English class had even been to America, so they probably wouldn’t realize what the hell I was talking about. She didn’t at least.
I explained to her that in many ways, Americans are very proud and patriotic. I even downloaded Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” (yeah, that one). I explained how it was really popular around the time of the first gulf war, and that it had a second wind a decade later during the resurgence of patriotism after the September 11th attacks. She ended up leading a discussion on that song and patriotism in general, and I guess it went over pretty well.
But I still keep thinking about the other part of that dichotomy, though: the embarrassment. Any of you that’s traveled on a train in Europe in the summer likely knows the feeling. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, trying to blend in and possibly make like the locals, when—like a banjo emitting a twang from the other end of the car—you hear a voice: the voice of your Fellow American! It would seem logical that this voice would be comforting and remind you of home, but counter-intuitively, it can also make your face turn red and make you want to get off the train at the next stop.
The voice can be from any American, really. It might be a middle-aged couple from Decatur complaining to another middle-aged couple they just met (let’s say they’re from Phoenix) about the fact that they have to walk down the hall to use the bathroom in their hotel. Or, it might be a college guy with a shirt proclaiming his university of choice and a matching ball-cap turned sideways, talking to his “bro” about how they totally got fucked up last night at the “Hoffbrow House” and tried to hook up with some chicks from Australia. Or, it might just be a man speaking VERY LOUDLY in English (so the foreigner will understand him) to the train conductor about how he didn’t know he needed a ticket for this particular train, so he shouldn’t have to pay, and especially not THAT much.
All three of these examples are just archetypes, I know, but all three of them make me a little embarrassed to be an American. I feel bad to say it, but I also know I’m not the only one out there that feels this way.
I know that, among people who travel a fair deal, especially while studying, that many times foreigners don’t want to be recognized as foreigners, and would rather blend in. Maybe they’re trying to learn a new language, or maybe they’re trying to have a true cultural immersion. Either way, though, it’s not necessarily an advantage if they’re identified as Americans. I tried to explain this to Pablo (the Colombian soccer player who lived here at Abuela’s house for a bit), but he didn’t really understand. He said that any time he met a Colombian in another country, he was always happy to see them, to talk to them, to find out where they’re from, etc. And I’m sure there are Americans like that, too. I’m just not usually one of them. I wouldn’t even approach a group of people that were obviously Americans when he and I went to a bar one evening. In fact, I actively tried to avoid them the whole night, in case they also didn’t want to be “outed” as Americans. I came to call it the Fleeting Gringo Dance.
I even have to do this dance sometimes with the locals. Costa Rica’s a pretty chilled-out place, and it’s actually pretty warm towards Americans, the United States, and visitors in general. This country is kind of an anomaly, because that’s not always the case. In Argentina, Mexico, and many countries in Europe, when people find out that I’m an American, the first thing they often do is complain about something my government is doing. Or, they also like to tell me exactly what America and all Americans are like (even if they’ve never been there). Sometimes I know what they’re talking about, and sometimes I don’t. The point is, though, that we are usually instantly identified with groups of people according to our cultural, religious, or national affiliations, and sometimes, it just gets old. That alone is sufficient reason for me to dislike Bush—his very existence makes my life harder because I get hassled in foreign countries (and that’s not necessarily a one-sided political statement; the same thing happened with Clinton, too…I remember a group of my fellow classmates at my German high school incredulously attacking me and Josh verbally because our country was trying to impeach a president for getting a blow job).
Anyway, I’m getting off track here, but this has all been on my mind for some time. Please feel free to post any comments you might have relating to this. I know that a lot of my friends that might read this are Ex-pats, Eurotrash, or Fellow Travelers, so I just wanted to hear any thoughts you might have on this topic. Or, if you prefer, you can look for me on the dance floor of international relations.

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3 thoughts on “The One Dance I Can Do Well

  1. I totally agree. I talked a little bit about this after I went and saw Borat, because that movie really showed the worst parts of America, but it was really accurate in so many ways. But even here in Australia, which everyone calls America Jr., I get too much of either the people that want to go to America, and think that they somehow missed out on their chance to get to heaven, or the ones that think that America is shit. Luckily, I have an easy enough time telling them that “yeah, I agree, it’s not the best place in the world, but don’t blame me”. So I know what you mean. I love my background and where I’m from, and that’s why it hurts me so much sometimes to be embarassed about my past. But I guess people in other countries get it just as much, so I try not to hold it against anybody. But I think that’s how a lot of people see things when they travel a lot.

  2. “Or, it might just be a man speaking VERY LOUDLY in English (so the foreigner will understand him) to the train conductor about how he didn’t know he needed a ticket for this particular train, so he shouldn’t have to pay, and especially not THAT much.”

    In my defense – I only did that once while we were in Europe and it was not my fault. I bought that weekend ticket from that nice girl with the equal ratio of face piercings to dogs and she said I could ride whatever train I wanted all weekend. Those crazy Germans.

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