What Living Abroad Taught Me about Americans
I may never have truly understood what makes someone from the United States “American” without having lived abroad.
I don’t mean the superficial traits you can notice when traveling: Americans wear baseball caps, white socks, and shorts. Americans talk more loudly than necessary. Americans take up too much physical space, sitting with legs splayed, standing with arms akimbo, and swinging bags around with little regard for other people. Americans tend to weigh more.
Instead, I refer to the mindset, the mental approach, the baked-in aspects of any culture that we rarely realize don’t mirror the way people in other cultures think. Our basic assumptions.
Sometimes, we need contrasts to see something.
Even to see ourselves.
I should easily get what I want, when I want it, and with a smile.
This shop closes at unpredictable hours—or has open times that don’t accommodate my schedule? Why can’t I find a twenty-four hour anything around here? The bistro’s house-made cassoulet takes an hour to reach the table? I have things to do, for pete’s sake. And why do these people act like they’ve done me a favor by exchanging my money for a train ticket?
How can anyone get anything done in this country?
Me: “Wow! I can get to Paris in less than three hours?”
Europeans: “They live in a different city, twenty minutes away. Too far.”
If we work hard enough, we can achieve anything. With enough will for something to occur, we’ll find a way to make it happen.
This deeply ingrained belief?
Our most defining Americanness.
American through and through, my core loves our country’s optimism—and frets at the possibility that it may no longer prove true. Though I recognize that it sometimes hamstrings us as a nation and people, I love our belief in the future, our hope for our possibilities, our bullheaded notion that we can make anything better if we just put our backs into it and use a little elbow grease.
And so felt quiet dismay when I encountered its opposite abroad.
Yes, Americans, some cultures believe more strongly than we do in fate, class, futility—forces they don’t see worth fighting and may even value in their own rights. If your dad worked as a plumber, why shouldn’t you feel perfectly happy to work as a plumber? You think you’re better than your dad? The gall. Anyway, you just ask for trouble by sticking your neck out. You tempt fate by trying too hard. And striving just seems strident. Gauche. Relax a little.
None of these mindsets is wrong—just different.
What American characteristics have I missed?