at a comedy show last week, a comedienne interviewed some audience members, asking where they were from, what they did, and so forth. one man sat grimly in the corner of the front row with his wife, who thought it was all delightful. the comedienne asked this man where he came from, and he very smugly and slowly said, “America.”
i knew right away that he was not, in fact, American, not only because of his badly imitated accent, but because i don’t know any Americans in Europe who would say, “i’m from America.” we all, including me and all the other Americans at the show, say, “i’m from the U.S.” turns out, the man was from Scotland, and being a smartass.
it’s mostly the Brits who say that someone is “from America.” pretty much every Brit i know here says it out of habit–it goes back a few hundred years (many also still call us Yanks). a lot of people give us crap about calling ourselves Americans, on account of the north and south portions. it’s the only decent adjective for us (what else would we say? United Statesians?). but i don’t know anyone who travels and says they are from America. my generation was taught that it is an inappropriate thing to say, and that our country is called the United States. they even changed the name of the pageant. but this issue is one of those cultural divides between the scorching reds and everyone else. i’m sure Glenn Beck would vomit in his mouth hearing that Americans living in Europe aren’t ranting about how great “America” is. (personally, i rant about how great the United States of America is.)
the other comedienne made lots of jokes about Americans and how we all ski because we’re idiots, and so on. i laugh at American jokes, because they’re funny. we are usually insulted as ignorant, stupid, culturally lacking, judgmental, racist, etc., and not to say that it’s not true some of the time, but it’s ironic that the people who accuse us of prejudice are doing the same thing to us.
every time i meet someone from the middle east, as soon as they find out i’m American, they say something like, “oh so you must be really scared of me then.” one guy made a big deal of telling me that there’s an Arab living in my building, and doesn’t that frighten me… i usually just blink at them incredulously and say, “um, no.” i would apologize for the racial profiling of middle eastern people in my country, but we were attacked by an Islamic terrorist group, which consists of middle eastern people. if we were attacked by Irish redheads, we’d be strip searching them, too. i was detained for an hour both ways on my trip to Israel–they actually took me into an office where i had to show them my picture on my comedy group’s website before they would let me through. people get paranoid when they think they’re living under a bullseye. that doesn’t mean we think all middle eastern people are terrorists.
it’s often much dumber than that. i was telling some friends that my sister and i traveled from Vienna to Prague to Dresden to Berlin by train, stopping in each city for a while. this guy i’ve never met turns to me and says “that’s soooooooo American.” i blinked incredulously and said, “they’re in a straight line, and we only had 5 days. it’s an extremely logical trip to make.” i don’t even understand what he was implying–that Americans are smart travelers?
but generally, peoples’ prejudices about Americans are extremely vague and uninformed, because most of the people making these statements have never actually been to the U.S. how would the Germans feel if everyone in the world assumed they were all Nazis because there is still a neo-Nazi movement here? the NPD actually won enough support to be on the ballot this year.
a lot of Americans don’t travel outside the country, and for that we are insulted and dismissed as xenophobes, or arrogant duschbads*. before i actually lived in Europe, i never really formulated a response for this assumption. a few months ago, i was talking with a Belgian guy who again brought up the “i heard most Americans don’t even have passports” line. it didn’t take me long to respond once i thought about it. i said that despite what people like to believe, most Americans are not rolling around in money, and international travel is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people. we do go to Canada and Mexico, just like the Europeans skip around to their neighboring countries, but the reason this “Americans don’t get passports” thing started is because until 9/11, we usually didn’t need passports to go to Canada and Mexico. if you didn’t look suspicious, they didn’t make a big deal out of it if you had a state ID, sometimes less. one time i took a bus to Montreal and forgot my passport. they let me through because i had a note from my mother wishing me a good time. i even boarded a plane once with no ID–they accepted my checkbook.
so i’ve tried to explain this to Europeans, and they usually just say, “huh. i never thought about it like that.” i also try to explain that many of our states are larger than their countries, and going from state to state is sometimes a bigger ordeal for us than jaunting from Switzerland to France to Italy, etc. i tell them i’ve lived in an Islamic country and studied Norwegian recreationally, and that we generally aren’t isolationists. i’ve often been told that i’m not a “typical American”.
my point is that it doesn’t make me feel special to be told that i’m not a “typical American”, as if i’m somehow the exception to the “Americans are idiots” rule. most modern Americans are paranoid as anyone else being threatened, but overall very tolerant and open to other cultures. our country is big, and contains a few hundred million people, including millions of immigrants and children of immigrants. get to know more of us before you call any of us “typical”.
phew. that’s been bugging me all year.
*duschbad=literally means shower bath, but sounds like something much funnier.