The American Thing

Last night I went to a housewarming party at The Swedes’ house, just a couple of blocks away from me in Newtown. I first met The Swedes—who we sometimes refer to by their names of Michael and Turrina as well as just by their nationalities–at the eighties’ party back in September, at which Turrina blew my mind with the fluorescence of her legwarmers and Michael wore pants so tight that they physically exploded off his body at the end of the night. My affection for them has only increased over time since then and I’m super excited to have them as neighbors, especially since they have a nice big kitchen with wood floors that are perfect for breakdancing.

Most of the people who showed up to this party had been affiliated with the Maple Lodge at one point or another, so we were a mix of British, Swedish (of course), German, French, Uruguayan, with one lone Kiwi guy and me as the only American. I was sitting in the lounge chatting to some people I hadn’t met, administering the backpacker questionnaire, and talking about travel in general: where we’d been, where we were from, where we were planning on going next. Someone asked whereabouts in the States I was from, after ascertaining I wasn’t from Canada, and that sparked a conversation about Kurt Cobain. And then, the comment I knew was coming: “You don’t meet many Americans traveling around here, do you. I heard a statistic that only fifteen percent of Americans have passports; is that true?”

I have this conversation a fair amount. Usually when someone says something like that (the variation is “Oh, someone who’s actually ventured outside the American borders!” or “An American who speaks something other than English!”) I say, “I don’t know, dude. Everyone I know has a passport, so I can’t really help you.” And then someone will usually say “I guess your own country is so big that there’s a lot to see there,” and I’ll go “Yeah, I haven’t ever been to the Grand Canyon or to Vegas.” And then someone will mention the war, or how culturally isolated Americans are, and usually I nod and say that that can be true sometimes, and that I personally don’t support the war or imperialism in general, and I voted against Bush twice, and that living with American domestic policy can be as disheartening as living with out foreign shenanigans. I often mention that being away from my country for a long-ish time has been really illuminating for me in terms of understanding how I fit into American stereotypes, that it’s very humbling for me to see how much people from other countries know about my country’s politics and pop culture, that I feel ignorant of the goings-on in the rest of the world a lot of the time and am trying to become more informed and educated.

This conversation—which I have about once a week—usually ends up with the other person going “Well, I guess we know a lot about you because you guys are always on the news and also I love Gray’s Anatomy,” and “Maybe you can show people that all Americans aren’t that bad!” and then I usually smile and get up to get another lemon-lime-and-bitters or a cup of tea and feel a very odd sense of frustration that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I’m not stupid: I know that American politics (not to mention pop culture) are hugely influential on the rest of the world. I had a pretty good idea before I came away that a lot of people think we’re stupid and childish and heavily blinkered against the outside world, who don’t like the way we get into preemptive wars and deny the existence of global warming and loudly complain on tour buses about how Kaikoura isn’t as good as California. I can’t ever be truly outside the States, unless I give up contact with my friends and family and stop emailing my senators every week, but slowly I’m starting to understand the pretty negative feelings a lot of people that I’ve met have about my home country.

I never know what, exactly, people want me personally to do about those feelings, and sometimes I really do feel as though I’m held responsible for everything my country does. I have one co-worker who seems to delight in informing me whenever she has a particularly heated anti-American conversation over lunch with her friends. Another day at work it transpired that I wasn’t on the office listserv, and someone said, “Well, what do you expect from her, she’s a bloody Yank!” and the pleasantries just careened on from there, with one person reminding me not to bomb the tea room. I’ve had several people ask where in North America I’m from, because they don’t want to insult me, if I’m Canadian, by assuming I’m from the States. I’ve also had people express surprise that I’m from the States at, telling me that they didn’t expect someone with my name and nose to be American.

I try to take all of this in stride, because first of all it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of life and most of the people I know could care less where I’m from on a day-to-day level; in fact I think I’m making this whole issue sound a little more dire than it really is. But also, it’s not like I can really do anything about my nationality, even if I wanted to. I was born in Canada and naturalized when I was two: it’s not like I had a choice in any of those matters. I’m still thinking about trying to get Italian citizenship but no matter how vowel-heavy my last name or olive my skin, no one is ever going to mistake me for anything other than American when I open my mouth. I’m not trying to pass as anything other than what I am, not trying to be from anywhere other than where I’m from.

I guess I’m not really sure how to feel or what to do about this aspect of my life here. I guess there’s nothing really to do, other than notice it and be aware of it and think about how my perspective is changing over time, But, ooh, I feel defensive sometimes. “I’m not actually an elected official myself,” I’ve sometimes said, or “I’ll make sure to let the authorities know that you don’t approve of how Americans make coffee,” or “Rest assured that Friends and The O.C. are not, like, documentaries.” I guess people from other countries, when they go abroad, also have similar conversations: I know the Germans do, and a couple of the English people I know get razzed at work for being whingeing poms. My friend Kelly says that she feels really weird sometimes as a Kiwi when she travels, because a lot of people, once they learn she’s not Australian, will have no conceptions about New Zealand at all. “Huh, New Zealand. That’s where Lord Of The Rings was filmed, right?” as if the entire country is a set location. We all do it to everyone, of course, and one of the whole points, one of the big joys, of traveling and living somewhere other than the place you’re from is that you get to decide for yourself what other places are like, how true the stereotypes are.

At the party, the people I was talking with eventually said, “Sorry about the American thing,” and we all got up to go dance in the kitchen. I met some nice new people and had a great time, and am looking forward to hanging out over at that house more in the future. My friendship landscape is shifting slightly: a lot of the people I first knew when I arrived six months ago, both International and Kiwi, have either left or getting ready to leave Wellington, and I’m getting to know some new ones and looking forward to the arrival of some others.

It’s a beautiful sunny day outside and I’m about to head out to the beach with my pretty friend Cherie. I repainted my toes a very shiny shade of purple and I’ve got lots more parties and festivals and plays and concerts to go to in the next couple of weeks. Lydia and Charlie are here for a couple of months, and Abi, David, Rob, Anna, Mat, James, Steven, and Georgina are all coming to visit soon soon soon. It turns out I’m not able to do the trapeze class this session but I will be able to do some yoga, and the other day I noticed a tiny baby little muscle in my calf from walking everywhere. I made some great pasta that’s going to be really good for my work lunch this week. Everything is pretty great with me at the moment, which makes the conversation about America and being American that I have so often even odder and more itchily uncomfortable.

12 comments

  1. I don’t know how you put up with the blatant anti-American stereotypes. Yes, of course, we are all pro-war and no one ever travcels to a foreign country or reads a book. And they think *we’re* provincial? HA!

    Seriously, I am sick to death of the idea that people are railing on America to you. Is the first thing out of your mouth when you meet a Kiwi a rant about their outrageously ageist immigration policies? When you meet a German do you talk shit about their complete inability to understand the concept of freedom of speech? Of course not, because you actually have, oh, I don’t know, MANNERS.

    It’s RUDE to meet someone, find out where they’re from, and then start slamming on their country and their culture. And I can’t help but wonder how many of these people have ever actually *been* to America for any length of time and seen that it actually has subcultures and people with different accents and lifestyles and skin tones and noses.

    ANd you should not forever be apologizing for your country or the actions of a government that you personally have zero control over.

    HARRUMPH!

  2. The anti-American thing abroad is interesting. Your whole entry has made me think two very disparate thoughts –

    1) Anti-foreign-power-ism is often connected to colonialism. In Tunisia (post 9/11 but pre Iraq War 2 “Attack of the Clones”) we were treated much better when people found out we were American and not French. Could it be that, through our government’s seeming delight in engaging in exercises of naked power and our culture’s virulence and omnipresence we have made the world feel as if they were our colony? Is colony even the right word? Neocolony? Unwilling protectorate? Are these spreading anti-American sentiments the first glimmering of colonial independence? What happens if they are? Everyone becomes free, or do they get new superpower masters? Our government has its (myriad) faults, but if I gotta choose a large superpower to live under it’s either us or the EU. Russia and China both seem to be evolving into some sort of grim meathook future.

    2) Did that guy who said “Sorry about the American thing” mean that he was apologizing to you for pinning your ear to the wall while ranting about where you came from, or was he saying that he was sorry for you? One is quite civil, and the other really isn’t.

  3. Yeah. What Renee said! I would find that incredibly rude, and would have developed a few subtly snarky conversation-ending comments to whip out as needed to gently but firmly direct people away from making a social faux pas of bitching to someone about their own country.

    *eye roll*

    I feel righteously indignant for you. Let me at em.

  4. That sucks! You must feel like some kind of diplomat! It is probably a part of travel and common to all people in both respects – you become a Person From Another Country, and that is a talking point. Once people work out I’m not from “some place in England” I get the Lawd of the rings, comments about being stuck in the 1950s, and Australia, and recently a comment on anti-immigration (though not the age thing…). I get all defensive even if I agree with them. I think Peter made some interesting comments. I think that now is a pretty low time for US policy etc in terms of international opinion. I’m not defending comments like what you’ve heard, it is mean and nasty, and some kind of bad ‘ist’ to assume stuff about people based on where come from, or to assume where they stand on caring for the world and people in it. I guess right now the US is infamous for its obvious representative and his government’s world impacting decisions on Iraq, and global warming, etc and people feel real strong about it, as everyone knows; Bush (& Borat) has a higher profile than all the people in the US who are just as frustrated. Every country has some shitty politics, NZ can get a little self righteous – the clean green thing is bullshit, and there is a pretty strong racist undercurrent that emerged during Brash’s stint. Anyway, I hope you are having some lovely Wellington sun and hanging with people who think it is awesome you’re from the state where that Meg Ryan Tom Hanks movie was shot…

  5. The O.C. is certainly a documentary of my life. I don’t know what you mean, Chiara. I feel misrepresented by your denying that I don’t go shopping everyday, live in a non-eco McMansion within a gated community, express my shortsighted opinions about my stunted worldview using “like” every other word, and consider it my goal to visit only Sandals resorts when I have the opportunity to travel.

    Please tell your co-workers that they have every right to believe what they see on television as entirely representative of America, and that the statistics about our passports and our voting records are never ever swayed or biased.

  6. I had similar feelings as a Texan living in the upper Midwest for six years: “Oh, I could NEVER live there/in the South/in Texas. It’s SOOOO racist.” And of course, upon inquiry, I’d discover that they’d never been south of Iowa and were just narrow-minded and buying into easy stereotypes. It’s a pity those type of people are cluttering up your landscape. Their ignorant and rude comments reveal a lot about them.

  7. When I first arrived in Glasgow, I too suffered through a shame about the political “mishaps” and felt like I needed to personally apologize on behalf of all shitty American tourists. Time and the experience of living in Scotland, has changed my knee-jerk response though.

    I’ve always felt proud to be Scottish, but for the first time in my life I also feel genuine pride for being an American. Every country has their pluses and minuses, I will point out to the rude critics, but at least my American mother raised me to be polite and keep my conversational observations on the positive side.

  8. Ugh – don’t let them define what being American means. There are many more people in this country than Bush – how ignorant to think otherwise. Maybe those disparaging people could use more travel to broaden their cultural knowledge.

  9. Sounds like Lileks had a similar experience right here at home (scroll down to the bit about going to the “likka stow”):
    http://www.lileks.com/bleats/archive/07/0207/020507.html

  10. Like Jecca I’ve often felt like diplomat of Texas to New York city, where for many years it was assumed that I must love George Bush and oil.

  11. I was mistaken for being from California while in California. “But you don’t have an accent!” That was bizarre and I was proud. Someone else thought I was Swedish. Its kinda irrelevant but I was sort of proud.

    The whole time I was in the US, whenever anyone found out I was from NZ they’d always ask what New Zealanders thought of America. Like NZ as a whole has an opinion on Americans. I said “Well I suppose some of them don’t like American, but others do” but I don’t mind that everyone treats countries as one united front because I guess everyone does that to an extent.

  12. I think that a very important part of living internationally is acting as a diplomat and being willing to listen and learn about the foreign culture (or sub-culture, especially as a foreigner visiting the US who has had soooooo much media influence as to what the US is). I also know that this makes me very tired. Some days I don’t want to leave my room because I know that I have to deal with harasement every time I hit the street in Ghana.
    I don’t go a day without someone yelling “obruni” at me. Sometimes it is friendly, as in “obruni, et e sen?” (white girl, how are you?), or a joking marriage proposal, or sometimes more tense as in a taxi driver who grabs my arm as I walk by and demands “obruni, where are you going?” From this, I am glad for every experience I have to actually talk with someone at a deeper level about cultural diversity at its various levels.
    The black-American’s here have a different, but equally chalening experience. Most blend (at least better than I do). But as soon as they open their mouth it is obvious that they are American and then attitudes change towards them. It is a good experience to understand the steriotypes / expectations placed on Americans.
    A final reflection, I traveled here with a group of about 50 Americans. We were a normal mix of ethnicities that have merged into American (European, African, Indian, Persian, Asia). We spent a night in Dubai and someone there was shocked that we were all from America. He thought all Americans were white/european and didn’t realize the diversity that we represent.