I’ve started coming to terms lately with some pretty shocking news. Are you ready? Here goes:
OK. I realize I may be the only one whom this is striking as news, so let me explain my thinking here.
I have never considered myself overtly “American” in any stereotypical sense of the word. I tend to be more comfortable taking direction than giving it. I’m rarely the loudest person in the room. I’ve spent time in more foreign countries than I have U.S. states, and before coming to New Zealand, I was getting a steady paycheck from the French government for telling Americans to go visit a country so many of them seem to hate out of principle. I told my mom I wanted to take French lessons at the age of nine, and a decade later, when the phrase “freedom fries” was coined, I was in Paris interning for a daily newspaper and developing the pain au chocolat quadrant of my palate. I’ve been to the Coliseum in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens, the Royal Palace in Bangkok, but never to Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon or even Ground Zero when it was in my own backyard. When I meet other travelers abroad, I nod solemnly through lectures about our astronomical health care and education costs, corn subsidies and NFL salaries and obesity and all other things incomprehensibly American to the rest of the world, and I offer up nothing by way of patriotic defense. I don’t know anything about the Super Bowl. I don’t buy junk food, I don’t drink Budweiser — I don’t even eat hotdogs. I spent the last fourth of July on a motorcycle tour of Vietnam, for God’s sake.
So as undeniably American as I may be, by birth and by upbringing, I’ve long considered myself somewhat of a rogue in the nationality department.
Which is why it surprises me just how quickly people I meet abroad are able to peg me as American. Even more jarring is how frequently I’ve been starting to notice unmistakably yankee qualities in myself.
Somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention, I became the loudest, most blunt person present just about everywhere I go. In hostel staff meetings, my coworkers look at me slack-jawed as I tell the owner of the place — with a smile — that he’s wrong about a roster, a booking, a maintenance issue. Organizing the hostel’s weekly quiz night, I’ll tell slow-poke guests to hurry it up when they drag their feet in forming teams or turning in their answers; the owner of the hostel often tells guests, with a chuckle, to be ready to face a real task master if they show up for trivia. Before I burst into tears on the Canyon Swing, the crew said they’d known I was American based solely on the fact that the volume of my voice was drowning out everyone else’s; the fact that my four-letter-word-heavy speech made me sound like the unholy offspring of Cher Horowitz and George Carlin.
Talking to guests at the hostel or taking orders for takeaway curry, I’ll sometimes listen to my own voice in horror as I realize I’ve picked up regional speech patterns from areas of the U.S. I’ve never even visited. I often sound like Tina Fey doing a Sarah Palin imitation. “What can I get for ya?” I’ll ask diners at the restaurant. “You just let us know if we can do anything to make your stay a little bit better,” I’ll tell hostel guests as I wrap up tours of the lodge, grinning stupid-wide and swooping my fist through a can-do arc like I’m working at TGI Friday’s.
Other American stereotypes are also becoming part of my personality. Out of nowhere, I’ve begun to crave order and efficiency. And here’s the thing about order and me: we’ve never had any kind of relationship to speak of. I’ve almost never made a bed without the promise of free rent. I’ve always worked well under deadline, but only when I’ve been told exactly what I’m expected to have produced at the end. I’m traditionally happy to do my bit, not overstep my bounds professionally, and let let others take the lead while I put my nose to my own grindstone. I get stressed out just trying to plan vacations. But these days, I get into a zone working in Excel while handling reception at the hostel. I will spend hours upon hours writing and researching trivia questions for the hostel’s quiz night, and if a guest has been late on paying his rent, I’ll put on my biggest smile, ask him how he’s doing, and then tell him point-blank to pay me now because his delinquent payment’s throwing a monkey wrench into the flow of my day. I’ll catch the hostel owner at least once a day telling guests — only half-jokingly — that he’s technically my boss but that you’d never know it.
Do these — ahem — qualities — make me more American? Maybe in the eyes of everyone else. But not so much to me. See, even if my own brashness, drive to organize, and hitherto unknown need to be in control have decided now’s the time to make themselves plain, they still feel like pretty facile qualifications to me. Besides, there’s one more brand-new aspect of my own American-ness that I’m finding even more surprising – and more genuine: I’m proud to be American.
I spent U.S. election day sitting in front of my laptop, compulsively refreshing the web pages of CNN and the New York Times and shooing away hostel guests who tried to change the TV from BBC World. When British and Dutch guests walked casually by and asked my why I was so worked up, why I’d be so upset if Romney won, why Americans get so into their politics, I felt a great knot in my belly and my throat got hot as I searched for words that wouldn’t make me sound like Thomas Paine. I dedicated great chunks of the afternoon to explaining the differences between Democrat and Republican; the practice of electoral voting; the fact that, yes, in America we do believe that a difference in leadership can mean fundamental differences in your everyday life and the practical applications of the beliefs you hold most dear.
On November 22nd, I sat in our hostel’s dining room with 50 friends and strangers from all over the world who’d gathered to celebrate American thanksgiving. Most of them were there, I’m sure, for the turkeys the hostel owner had special ordered and basted all day; the mini-Yorkshire puddings and great troughs of stuffing he’d placed on each table. I doubt many of them knew why we celebrate thanksgiving in the States, and as an American coworker of mine stood up on his chair and lectured the group on the historical significance of the pilgrims and Plymouth rock, I don’t know that anyone actually paid attention. But once he’d sat down, I pulled another American move — I jumped up, unprompted, and took the floor.
“Look, everyone,” I heard my voice saying before I’d even realized I was already standing on a wicker chair. “We don’t really like to talk about what happened after the pilgrims sat down with the Native Americans. Let’s just say, we didn’t treat them very well. But these days, thanksgiving in the States has taken on sort of a new meaning. It’s a day when everyone can get together — strangers, friends — and be taken in as family. Which is why I think it’s particularly appropriate that we’re all together today from all over the world. That’s what thanksgiving is for.”
And in the end, maybe that’s what being an American abroad is all about: It’s about being just as proud of where you’re from as you are of where you’ve been. It’s about taking the best bits of what your country and culture stand for and helping them overshadow the more brazen characteristics your people might be better known for. It’s about realizing that going home one day might not be so bad after all – but that for now, it’s pretty good to be a yankee in a strange land.