As most people who’ve lived abroad as an American can attest to, one is often left playing the Token American, there to field questions and comment about every unpopular decision our home country has made over the past 100 years. As America is a culture that permeates the world — in language, in entertainment, in foreign policy — it is only natural that people would form opinions about it, and not always flattering ones. It’s easy to feel inundated by American culture no matter where you are. You see signs, hear music, and read news stories that make you feel as though you could be living in the middle of Kansas when you’re standing in a small town in southern Spain. And unlike with most other cultures, people in your new countries will feel more than at ease when making any and all critical or even slanderous statements about the good ol’ US of A. “We’re the big boys,” the mentality seems to say, “we can take it.”
All American ex-pats (permanent or temporary) have at least one story where they were sitting at a dinner or over drinks and had to awkwardly engage a rant by a fellow diner over what they dislike about America. Perhaps they didn’t like the people when they visited, or they disagree with our foreign policy, or they really dislike that 70 percent of the movies in their local theaters are Chris Evans with subtitles. In any case, they have something not-so-nice to say about our country, and they have no qualms with letting you have it. And beyond that, as an American, you are expected to conduct this entire monologue/sparse conversation with an “I know, I know” look on your face, defeated and embarrassed to be from such a terrible, horrible, no good country. To vigorously defend your town, your community, or even the fact that you did not and would never vote for Bush is to be an Ugly American, a Cowboy, someone who can’t accept that just because we scream the loudest on a national level doesn’t mean we’re right.
Though it’s true that you will often meet people who love America, and will go out of their way to congratulate you on just having been born in such a great country (a consistently charming compliment, and one that makes you realize how lucky you are), the gusto with which people will hurl insults is equally powerful. You will be expected to field questions about 9/11, Karl Rove, Hurricane Katrina, Occupy Wall Street, and Obama — and no matter how pointed the question, no answer will truly be right. There is a balance to be struck — a wishy-washy half-agreement that, yeah, we’ve done some pretty crappy stuff, but you’ll never really find it. And even the people who go out of their way to say how much they love America and can’t wait to go back will be met with similar criticism, if put in the right circle of people. “Why would you want to go there,” they’ll ask, “when there are so many other great countries out there?” A fair question, I suppose, but one that is clearly meant to emphasize how not worth it a trip back to the States would be. Anywhere else would fulfill your desire to travel without compromising the principles that surely you must have against America.
But what’s most shocking to me, I think, is the idea that we are just supposed to take it without the slightest trace of offense. And now more than ever, with the xenophobia and racism spilling over Europe like a nice, warm blanket — along with the economic crisis–there is not one inch of Europe’s house that is not glass. Yet they are more than happy to lob the biggest stones they can find at my home country. But to me, and I imagine to most Americans, the idea of meeting a Dutch or Italian person who came to our country and launching into a 10-minute diatribe about how much you hate Geert Wilders’ immigration policy or how much of an embarrassment Berlusconi was would seem incredibly inappropriate. It would be so insulting and wrong to just insult someone’s homeland like that — especially over things that the person visiting may very well not like themselves. To put the blame or the accusations indirectly on this person’s shoulders and have them make excuses for what other people who share their nationality have done would be cruel, and would work to undo the good being done of them coming into another land and learning a new culture and language. It would teach them that, on some minuscule level, they are not welcome. They are not like us. There is something inherently different, and in a way, worse, about them. It would make them feel uncomfortable and out-of-place. We just wouldn’t do it.
Americans, though, seem to be fair game at any and all times. Logically, I get why this is the case. We are omnipresent in terms of culture and exposure, everyone believes they know our own country better than we do. And I likely would, too, had I been raised in Europe, for example. I would probably think that America puts its national neck out there, and shouldn’t be surprised if people hate it. They shouldn’t be surprised if they get a backlash, even down to an individual level. But Americans are not our government, we’re not our foreign policy, and we’re not Michael Bay movies. We’re individuals who have a million reasons for traveling, or for meeting new people — and it hurts us just as much as it would hurt someone from Japan, Kenya, or New Zealand if you started off the conversation with how much you hate what our homeland stands for.