American Awareness: Thoughts on Global Citizenship

I am never more aware of being American than when I am abroad. I don’t quite know how to explain this particular feeling of American awareness. It’s not pride or arrogance, or even shame, but finding the words to accurately describe this feeling is proving elusive. At home there is a truly bizarre fascination with your heritage, but I almost guarantee that every time the 1/8 Polish, 1/8 Korean, 1/4 Brazilian and 1/4 Kenyan American is abroad, they only indicate their American heritage when asked “Where do you come from?”

Lindy Hop lesson before the live music starts

Last friday I was transported back in time to September 4, 1944 – the day that British troops liberated Antwerp from German forces. To commemorate the event, the city of Antwerp put on a small festival in Groenplaats called Brevrijd! where people could come out and listen to live big band music  and practice their Lindy Hop steps. And it was here that I was at once hit by the strangeness of being an American abroad.

I heard music that was distinctly american, saw Belgian men in US Air force garb and women in 1940’s dresses. I also saw men and women in present day garb proudly displaying the American Flag in some decorative fashion. I heard a man teaching in Dutch the steps to a dance that originated in New York.

It all struck me as odd.

It was odd because my husband told me that it was the British soldiers that liberated Antwerp those years ago. So why was seeing all these American related things?

“It’s because after the war, everything American was great,” he informed me.

“But you said it was the British,” I said waving my hand around the scene. “I just don’t get it.

“I guess the Americans had a better spin doctor.”

WWII reenactors at Bevrijd! Notice the man on the far right is in an American Air Force uniform.

And so for the last two days, I’ve been ruminating over the event. Why was everything American great after the war? Was this particular music and dance just very distinctive at the time? And why almost 70 years are they still using American icons rather than something else?

I keep thinking back to this article I read a few months ago because it was floating around Facebook. Having spent a fair amount of time abroad myself, I was curious to see what people were saying. In this article, Mark Manson addresses the general populace of America and details the top 10 things he thinks most Americans don’t know and should. I don’t know that I agree with his rhetoric style, but I can agree with him on several points.

I have been lucky enough to get to visit many different parts of the world. I have driven across some scary one lane roads and enjoyed the scenery on international trains. I have stayed in anything from local houses to hotels. And like Mark, I have also found that few people hate the US, that few people are impressed by us,  that we’re a very paranoid people, and we Americans are frequently pretty ignorant of the rest of the world. (I include myself in that last bit, considering I had no idea that it is apparently a very French trait to drink your morning coffee out of bowl until about a month ago.)

My problem with his essay has nothing to with his observations and everything to do with his implications: that because we’re paranoid, ignorant, and generally less impressive than we think we are, that the United States should “give up [its wayward] ways”, as if that’s the answer to make the US a better contributing member to the global society.

And while I think I understand what he’s trying to articulate as I have experienced it myself, he overlooks the fact that there is still a very strong fascination about American Culture in the world.

What do  I mean by “fascination” you ask?

I saw it when I was in Spain and you could buy Hawaiian style Leis and sunglasses or t-shirts with the American Flag printed on them in tourist shops. I heard it when my Portuguese friends told me about how much hope she had for the world when Obama was elected as President of the United States, despite the fact that elections in France and Germany have more of an impact on European politics than US elections.  I touched it when my best friends German relatives were so excited were so excited to buy a hat said “American’s #1 Grandpa.” And I could have tasted it when an Antwerp restaurant advertised a “Texas” burger, which was really just a cheese burger with bacon.

And all of these subtle American infiltrations all point to something that I think Mark missed. When you’re abroad, people will quickly stop caring that you’re American, it’s true.  It’s one of those facts that people stop remarking because it’s fairly obvious and rather unchanging, like a hair color. And like a hair color, it is something  that people remember about you. I think that’s the important part when you consider how much attention many people put on America as a whole –  a whole collection of a vast a varied people that you alone will represent in whatever pocket of the world you’re currently in.

People might not care too much that you are American when traveling abroad, but there still is a subtle fascination with the United States as a culture. And because of this, we must act responsibly in the world.

I will let other people argue whether or not American influence on a global scale is on the decline, but I don’t think anyone is claiming that the US is no longer in a position of influence. And rather than lecturing my “alcoholic brother” as Mark in his disarmingly hostile manner puts it, I would rather remind and encourage nationals and expatriates alike to represent yourself and your country well, no matter where you are.

People might not be impressed that you’re American, but they will notice you’re American. And they’ll remember. And they’ll form an opinion about you and the US as a whole, one they probably will never share with you but share with all their friends. So be aware that you might be a tad over paranoid, remember that happiness comes in forms other than luxury and comfort, and mind your manners.

I think this clip from “In Bruges” captures it best. The line is around 1:08:

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