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.