Perspective

An American abroad

Do Americans really think they’re the best? An American learns from life abroad

By Raechelle Wilson

I’m not going to lie to you. Your suspicions about Americans are probably true.

Growing up as an American – a white, middle-class, Protestant American – I was indoctrinated with all of the beliefs about what it means to be from the USA: we are the best. We are number one. We are the greatest country. Period.

To understand Americans, you have to understand this mythology. You have to understand this very basic thing that we all are raised to believe: we are smarter. We are richer. We are more savvy, more powerful than any people in the world.

It’s embarrassing to write that. And I doubt you will find an American abroad who admits to feeling that way, but we all know we are taught this. For a nation of so many cultures, there is, in fact, only one culture that matters: American.

A colleague of mine recently told me something interesting about travel. He said, “Living abroad, you learn many things about other cultures. But most of what you learn about is your own.”

I’ve lived in Denmark for two years. Long enough to begin to learn some things about Europeans – and Danes in particular. But I’m just beginning to understand my own country from outside the box.

I can see now that some of the stereotypes are true: we are loud. We are culturally ignorant. We are work-obsessed and, unless we grew up with non-native parents, almost none of us speak a second language.

As an American abroad, there’s a fine line to walk. There’s a tendency to be an apologist – to make fun of what seems, now, to be my almost absurdly privileged and self-involved culture.

Strangely, though, moving abroad has also made me understand why we are all of those things:

We don’t speak other languages because most of us live thousands of kilometers from anywhere we might use them. (Though, to be fair, the US has the world’s fifth-largest Spanish speaking population.)

We don’t have passports because we have no reason for them: it’s very expensive to leave the country, and most of us haven’t come close to seeing a third of it yet.

We haven’t seen a third of it yet because we don’t get vacation. That five-six weeks most Europeans are entitled to? Many Americans don’t see that much vacation in a lifetime. Holiday pay is entirely up to the employer; it is optional. (At my last job I accrued three vacation days a year. After the first year.)

We are obsessed with work because we don’t have a lot of choice. We have almost none of the social safety nets that other industrialized nations consider standard. And I think most Americans would consider the phrase “work-life balance” to be some kind of hippy therapy group.

All of these things – along with inane 24-hour news networks – conspire to ensure our cultural ignorance, thus reinforcing our own silly notion that “we are number one.” It’s a positive feedback loop. How can we compare ourselves to others if we don’t even know them?

I’ve come abroad to find that I am not “the best.” But also to find that there’s no such thing. There are plenty of things that the US does better, in my opinion. (Grocery stores, for one. God, do I miss American grocery stores.) But there are many things that every country does better. And I’ve come to see that there is beauty in every culture.

I only wish learning about them wasn’t such a luxury.

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