Only by traveling abroad does Kyle Carpenter appreciate what it means to be an American.
I’m proud to be an American. Despite the petty political partisanship, uncontrollable consumerist culture, unsustainable attitudes toward natural resources, and rampant ignorance of anything happening beyond our own shores, Americans still have much to be proud of. From the revolutionary founding principles in our Constitution to a free market economy that inspires boundless innovation in science and technology, its no wonder US citizens refer to their nation as the “greatest country in the world.”
Despite a recent appreciation for my home country, I haven’t always been proud to have been born in the United States. Thanks to several good teachers and a few thought-provoking books, I grew up acquiring a sharp critical lens that often focused on the deficiencies of American culture, society, and government. In college I studied philosophy and political science, and engaged in heated discussions with professors and peers about justice, individual freedom, and social responsibility in the United States. My tendencies have always leaned toward questioning the culture and values of my home country. That all changed when I started traveling.
In August of 2009 I packed up my life and moved to Switzerland. Over the next three years I explored three continents, fifteen countries, and over twenty-five major cities. While working at an American college in Europe, I had the privilege of meeting some amazing people from across the globe with fascinating viewpoints that reflect the values of their heritage. Additionally, my travels allowed me to partake in a beautifully diverse array of food, music, wine, and language, as I gained remarkable insight into cultures and how they differ from region to region around the world. Not only did my international adventures give me firsthand perspective on foreign people and their customs, they also shed light on what it means to be an American.
I hadn’t ever given much thought to the details of American culture before living abroad. The American way of life was all I ever knew, so there wasn’t anything else to consider or compare it to. Individual freedom and liberty have always been good things to be defended and championed. Diversity is sought out and scrutinized. Bigger is always better. Speed and convenience are valued above most things. These were all realizations that I only started to understand after traveling to countries that don’t appreciate individuality, diversity, size, and speed in that same way that Americans do. Once I began to experience people and cultures with different values I truly gained insight into the nuances of my own.
This process of cultural exploration and discovery began to have a significant impact on me. I started eating foods based on their local popularity, not my personal preference. I adopted a wardrobe to match the fashion styles of the area, not my usual t-shirt and flip-flops. I attempted to learn and use the regional language instead of insisting upon English for every interaction. I researched the history, geography, and politics of various regions and countries as opposed to relying on a basic understanding of my own homeland. Indeed, gaining cultural perspective forced me to step outside of my comfort zone to try new things, adopt unfamiliar habits, and appreciate different lifestyles from what I had known my whole life.
Any citizen of the U.S. who has spent a significant amount of time traveling abroad likely understands how easy it can be to be identified as an American. We generally tend to stick out like sore thumbs. Whether it’s because of the way we dress, the food we eat, the volume of our conversations, or the number of souvenirs we buy, it usually isn’t too hard to peg an American in a foreign country. Sometimes these cultural cues are used to target American tourists, capitalizing on our travel dollars or criticizing our government’s foreign policy. Other times, American travelers are praised for our country’s international humanitarian efforts and acts of goodwill around the globe. Regardless of how others might feel about us, however, they generally don’t have a problem picking us out from a crowd.
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. Given that my time abroad opened my eyes to new ways of life, some of my behaviors blurred the cultural lines of what most internationals came to expect from an American traveler. It wasn’t that I had “gone native” and completely abandoned my roots. Rather I was just a little harder to put a finger on. My clothes didn’t quite look American, but I certainly couldn’t pull off the chic styles of Europe. While I still spoke mostly English, I always attempted to use phrases and key words in the host country’s language. I was a bit of an enigma according to many outside observers. While most people I encountered while traveling were still able to determine my American roots, I was often mistaken as a native of either the United Kingdom or Canada.
Being labeled as British or Canadian was often confusing. Sometimes I took the misidentification as a compliment; an indication that I had managed to deviate from the ugly stereotype of American tourists. Other times I took offense to the assumption, feeling somewhat insecure about not appearing “American enough” despite my ties to the country and culture. It wasn’t that I had a problem with people thinking I was British or Canadian; in fact there were times when I felt it was to my advantage. Unfortunately I would usually end up embarrassing myself because I couldn’t authentically pull off the assumed identity. After spilling the beans about my American heritage, I would often receive looks of surprise and even contempt. Needless to say, navigating various assumed national identities when traveling, whether true or inaccurate, was somewhat of a perplexing puzzle.
There is no doubt that being an American comes with countless global opportunities and advantages. My U.S. passport allows me to travel to nearly any country in the world, a distinction not granted to many other nations. The English language is spoken at some level in nearly every corner of the globe, allowing me to easily communicate in places where others who don’t share my language might not. The American dollar, while experiencing some recent declines, still has more global purchasing power than many other national currencies. Time and time again, my travels reinforced the upside of these realities while revealing the lack of these same benefits for citizens of other countries. If given the chance, however, I would not happily give up any of these American privileges.
Despite enjoying the many benefits of my nationality, there were several occasions during my travels when I would allow others to assume that I wasn’t an American. This generally happened when being labeled a US citizen was not to my advantage. Whether it was during discussions of politics and history or negotiating a price for goods in a local market, there were definitely times when I leveraged my ambiguous national identity to my benefit. Some may say that this is simply smart traveling, but honestly I was just being a coward.
Being an American means taking the good with the bad. It means accepting the rights and responsibilities that come with being one of the most powerful countries in the world. Sometimes that works to our advantage and other times it means facing the ugliness of our more ignorant and arrogant moments. As nice as it might be to evade responsibility when we make these mistakes, it shouldn’t work that way. This sort of attitude only serves to tarnish the reputation of our country abroad. Sadly, my choice to let others believe I wasn’t American did nothing to right our nation’s international wrongs. My choice did nothing to demonstrate a positive example of the many thoughtful American travelers around the globe. My choice was simply an attempt to evade a difficult responsibility while simultaneously enjoying the inherent privilege of my citizenship.
While my actions may not have shown it, I am proud to be an American. I’m not proud to admit that I didn’t speak up when others wrongly assumed my nationality. This behavior is in fact the opposite of what it means to be an American. It wasn’t until I traveled the world and experienced countries and cultures operating under different principles that I truly gained insight into the real American character. The values that define us aren’t always easy to live up to, as I clearly demonstrated, but that is exactly why they are worth maintaining. I am proud to be an American because I will continue working toward those noble goals along with my fellow countrymen. I am proud to be an American because I’ve been outside the U.S. and seen the difference between other countries and mine. I am proud to be an American because it’s my home. I’m proud to be an American because it defines who I am and what I value, whether I want to admit it or not.
Image credit: TroyMason/Flickr