Oh. You Don't Seem American.May 28, 2014
"You don't seem American. You're cool."
"No way, you're not American!"
"But you're basically Canadian anyways."
"You're nothing like other Americans."
"I don't believe you."
On May 5th, I returned from two weeks' vacation in Thailand rested, on the verge of being alarmingly tan and questioning my nationality more than ever. Being an American is tricky--you can't be openly patriotic, because everyone hates you. It's easy to fall into the trap of going along with the America bashing, but America bashing with non-Americans is a bit like your friends shit-talking your mom: it's ok for you to do it, but it's not ok for anyone else to do it. I am used to being told I'm not like other Americans, and I guess that's fine. Does this mean I am surprising the general backpacking community by not walking around with a semi-automatic weapon, bag of McDonald's and am not morbidly obese? Maybe. (But on the McDonald's note, I just want to say that Aussies love that shit more than any American I've ever met.) So many western foreigners are genuinely shocked that I am American, and while I do take a perverse pride in that, it also hurts a little.
I get that everyone [everyone meaning the Western world] hates America, and for a lot of very good reasons. There are a lot of undeniably awful things America has done, is currently doing and will undoubtedly do to the rest of the planet. However, I think a lot of this resentment, particularly from the British and Aussies, comes from the fact that their countries often follow in our footsteps. Yeah, I said it. Srynotsry. I find myself defending the American government more than I would have ever expected in my wildest dreams: have I made excuses for why only a third of Americans have passports? Have I justified our deplorable gun laws? Have I played devil's advocate for nearly every social issue in the global media? You bet (thanks, Dad). Like I said, I can shit talk America all I want, because I'm American. But I can't shit talk England or Australia or New Zealand because I'm not from those places and I don't understand the nuances of their politics. I get that America is the bully in the global school yard, and it's fair for people to hate us, as a country. That is totally fine. What's not fine is equating American citizens with the policies of our government, and then upon meeting level-headed, well-adjusted and somewhat intelligent citizens of America, doubting their citizenship. I may not love everything much that America does, but I'm still American. I may never want to live in America again, but that's because of who I am, not because of what America is.
The most bizarre encounter I've had on the topic of "but you're too cool to be American" was a group of three ex-army guys. They had come to Bangkok within 24hours of finishing their...army stuff, and I started talking to one of them on the corner of Khao San Road. None of them believed me that I was American. I get that a lot, if people don't talk to me, because everyone seems to think Americans are morbidly obese or otherwise physically disfigured in some manner. 90% of the time western foreigners assume I'm Australian/German/Dutch (way to stereotype, guys) with the occasional Swede or Norwegian thrown in their (and as everyone knows, having strangers assume you're Nordic is the highest compliment possible in the SE Asia backpacker crowd). But as soon as I open my mouth, I sound straight outta...generic America. But these three Americans weren't having it. "You have some weird Aussie/English/Canadian accent," one said. Um...yes...that would possibly be the American accent? I'm confused.
I then pointed out that NO PERSON IN THEIR RIGHT MIND would falsely claim to be American while traveling. "Oh man, I love Americans!" said no western backpacker ever. This point may have been slightly lost on these new civilians, but it was still made.
Every time someone backhandedly compliments me by saying I seem nation-less, I am glad I've avoided coming across as an ignorant slug, but also a little hurt that people I meet (and usually like) have such a blind dislike or disdain for America when really, we're not that bad, as individual people. Of course I have stereotypes based on nations (why are the Spanish so weird?! Must they have such bizarre hairstyles? Why don't they ever wear bras?!) but I would never say 'oh you have normal hair, you don't seem Spanish,' because having normal hair and being Spanish are not mutually exclusive. Being cool/intelligent/fun/adventurous and being American shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive, either.
In short, I had a lot of fascinating conversations with a lot of wonderful people in Thailand. Every single one of them commented upon my un-Americanness at one time or another. It doesn't bother me as much as may have made it seem, but it makes me sad for America as a whole, and makes me feel more solidarity with other Americans abroad than I may otherwise. I've said that I don't feel any more connected to other Americans than to any other western foreigner, but that's no longer true. I feel solidarity and connection with my fellow Americans because now, upon meeting, we have the bond of "oh, yeah, people give you shit too. props, brah," a bond which, I am...proud? to say, no other nation has.
And so, I nod to you, fellow Americans abroad. Don't let the haters keep you from doin your [travelin] thang.
Unless you are one of those dreadful, stereotypically loud and ignorant Americans. In which case, read a book.
Also, The British Empire. Nobody abroad gives the Brits shit for their government of yore. Nobody abroad gives the Aussies shit for being White Australia until horrifyingly recently. Just sayin.