Friday, May 03, 2013

Rebuttal to 10 Things Americans Don't Know about America

There's a blog post going around on Facebook that three of my favorite Americans in the Netherlands have posted and commented on approvingly.

It's written by an American living in Germany who wants us to know "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America".

You can read it here.

He posits that we're basically ignorant about geography, think that everyone loves us or hates us, are poor at expressing gratitude (which he rather confusingly equates with women feel free to tell him to fuck off when he hits on them in the US), the quality of life in the US is not that great, the rest of the world is not a shithole, we're paranoid, status-obsessed, unhealthy, and equate comfort with happiness.

I disagree with his points 1 (noone is impressed by us), 6 (the rest of the world is not a shithole), and 7 (we're paranoid). I'm a humanitarian aid worker born of a British mother and American father who has lived in Europe for 4 years and Asia for 2 years. I've traveled extensively and been throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and some of the Pacific and Latin America. My opinion may be influenced by the fact that I spend a lot of time in slums and refugee camps with abused women.

For number 1, I have actually found that when I travel and people learn I am from America, they go out of their way to tell me how much they want to go there or how much they admire it. Perhaps its politeness but the USA has a hold on the imaginations of people around the world. Its also the most desired destination for people who cannot return home to their countries and are seeking third country placement. Also, in grad school for a research methods class, I did a qualitative project in a major 5 star hotel interviewing "immigrants" who worked there (almost everyone was!) about their perception of the USA and Americans. It was strongly influenced by where they came from. Northern Europeans with their social support system (cheaper education, healthcare, and beautiful cafes!) were hyper critical of the US. People who escaped repressive regimes, desperate poverty, and war were much more accepting of the US and its flaws and were grateful to have the opportunity to be there. If you compare our healthcare to Sweden or the nicest hospitals in Asia, we suck. If you compare them to the desperate places in Liberia, Haiti, or the Congo - we look pretty darn good. But even those critical Northern Europeans loved our music, our way of life, driving across the USA in a convertible and buying cowboy boots. They just didn't like to admit it openly. And the Brits I've met are the MOST critical about the USA! What British people is this guy meeting?

Also for number 6 (we think the rest of the world is a shit hole), for many of the people around the world, there is still such a thing as the American dream and they want a part of it. This may be because the places I go as compared to the author are almost always wartorn or suffering rather than cool bars in Hamburg and Berlin in Europe (its a German blog - I get to the cool bars in Hamburg and Berlin as much as I can). And the line in Bangkok (where I live) outside the US embassy for visas is always long and always busy - even if we have awesome cineplexs here, people still long for a country without corrupt police, politics, and fear of warfare (there is actually armed conflict in the South of Thailand). The wifi tuktuks are in Sukhumvit or Khao San where the tourists are  - if you are really in the know, you take a motorcycle taxi or a taxi because you don't want to be stuck in the  shitty traffic breathing exhaust when you can whiz between the lanes of traffic or sit in the a/c checking your own phone through Thailand's excellent 3G network.

And while he says most places are not as shitty as we imagine them to be, some are much worse... there are actually dangerous, awful parts of the world. Yes, people are friendly but Americans are also renowned as some of the friendliest people on earth. If you talk to aid workers or soldiers, they will always mention how hospitable and friendly the US contingents are... although hospitality is a trait that most of the world shares. The only place I have found people to be shockingly inhospitable has been the Netherlands where (as most taxi drivers there told me)  a dutch person will famously tell you that its dinnertime so its time for you to leave their house.

I put the fear that Americans have about other countries down to the fact that the US is a big country and its expensive for many to travel. And that fear sells the media - how often do you hear good stories about other countries? Or even our own? Most Americans aren't forced into foreign travel by economic desperation - like a lot of the rest of the world - so they aren't confronted with their misconceptions. This is a trivial little example but I was watching Flight of the Conchords last night and their mother in New Zealand was worrying about them in NYC and asking if they need a gun. The US is actually not as awful and dangerous as many Europeans seem to think it is. Many of them come to the US and react with surprise at how much they liked it!

Finally number 7 - we're paranoid due to our media but also amazing naive in foreign countries. We blithely think we won't be touched by the crime and corruption in other countries. But this also strikes me as white privilege.  I heard some stories a few months ago about african-americans in Europe who were beaten up and almost deported by the police in Greece (despite being professors who were traveling there). Some Americans in Dubai, Qatar and Thailand and have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the law and detained indefinitely in the shitty prisons in these countries - there is a news story in Thailand about a man who had a dispute with his landlord and has een detained in Thailand for 9 years! And the stories you hear about what happens to travelers who don't happen to be rich enough (thanks to our great but floundering US economy) throughout the rest of the world will make your hair curl. Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, and Sri Lankans who travel to the Middle East hoping to make money to support their families back home live in appalling conditions and are desperately treated. It's thanks to our economic privilege and probably due to the color of our skins that we can travel around and be treated well in other countries. Like the US, all countries have good and bad people living in them. But normally, we get to experience it through our privilege.

A friend who commented on Facebook like me also pointed out his very sexist assumption about women too. In many countries, women have no choice but to be friendly to some dude who comes up to them on the street and hits on them in such an obvious way - they are afriad they'll be raped or attacked if they don't play along and act nice. And the sexual and physical violence that women face in many of the countries in the world is shocking and heart breaking.

TL:DR - the author is shocking in his naivete about the rest of the world and bases his opinions most probably on his experiences in the privileged white world of the middle class American traveler who can afford to rent nice apartments in the nice parts of town (usually the expat part of town) and thinks he's discovered that the US is awful.

The USA might not be the best country in the world but its still a great country - it has a lot to change and a lot to address (like everyone else here has said - healthcare! guns!). I was feeling the same way about wondering why the US was so nuts now with the politics and the violence until I went back home with open eyes to participate in our electoral process to elect our African-American president who was raised in Indonesia, Hawaii, Kansas, California, and NYC. There was nary a riot. There was singing and smiling in the electoral center where i went in Sumter, SC where predominantly African Americans lined up to re-elect Barry Obama, the whitest guy in town.

The USA is great! Food trucks! Great new live music everywhere - from the blues to jazz to rock and roll! The organic food revolution - which has been going on in South Carolina since at least the 90s when I was working in an organic food market! The streams of different cultures that have all put their own stamp on what being American is (a Korean bulgogi taco served with a Belgian beer in South Carolina!) but if you look at the level of innovation and creativity going on in the USA and stop just watching the news media about it and go visit. I apologize in advance for our immigration officers at the airport... but its not such a bad place.

1 comment:

  1. Your response is excellent! I read his piece and was supremely irritated by the holier-than-thou douchebaggery, ultra-narrow perspective, and clueless white male privilege on display. (And for the record, I've lived in six countries and traveled in 50+).