"Oh, God, You're American?"

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. TC mark

image – AForestFrolic

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • Anon

    I saw the same, but it was only a way to notify those american that they were anoying and making a mess of themselves.  Friendly and open ones do not have to fear about that.

  • Adamcrittenden

    Haiku #4

    The downtown diner
    smelled like pancake syrup.
    So did I, now that I think about it.

  • macgyver51

    When it comes to Europeans, I just ask about the time they all got together and went on a rape and pillaging mission to Africa and Asia for about 100 years, setting up much, if not all,  of the problems that plague those regions today and then conveniently forgot about them. Usually you get a blank stare, they like to play possum.

  • http://twitter.com/4tea2 B.E.

    Spot on. Though mostly I find people to be simply interested rather than disparaging about having an American immigrant in front of them. I rather like discussing Pulp Fiction style “little differences” as well. When I visit family in the US everyone is keen to hear about my life in Europe and often surprised to know it’s quite a fantastic place. It can be like you described but it can go the other way too. 

  • mfjonny

    Unexpected and refreshing. Thanks.

  • Charles Reinhardt

    When I was living in Ireland I was surprised at how little American culture people were exposed to. There are a lot more English, Australian and Irish pop stars, television shows and news broadcasters than I realized. 

    I tend to feel like the entire industrialized and developing world share a slowly converging culture and weltanschauung and that America is actually the odd one out. 

    In fact the first thing that struck me once I moved to New York was the feeling of having entered a “bubble” where suddenly the outside world seemed muted and American standards and assumptions had become the benchmark in a way I had never experienced before. 

    My girlfriend and I both find that we develop a kind of shorthand with other non-Americans at our respective offices. It’s hard to explain but when you meet a non-American you suddenly share a number of opinions about basic things like labor standards, healthcare, societal progress and you develop a kind of bond.

  • Emglennon

    I was studying in England a few semesters ago and my Romantics professor asked me what my thoughts were on the American Revolution, as if it happened yesterday,

    • Nishant

      maybe he just asked because you’re an American student and may have a different, more personal perspective?

  • Emily

    If you welcome free dialogue, you won’t have a problem defending it. If people are more emotional than rational, call them out on it like you would for any other topic.

    I do think you hit the nail on the head when you said “are omnipresent in terms of culture and exposure” – every country in the world had to grow up with our direct influence in their lives, something that can’t be said of the reverse. Such is history with the rise and fall of nations.

    However, most international people I have spoken with as an American have known far much more about our politics, our history and our actions than we do. Even more embarrassing is that most Americans haven’t been able to have a conversation about foreign politics because they simply know next to nothing about it.

    I think that as citizens of a country, we shouldn’t take it so lightly. By remaining a U.S. citizen (even if you were born one, such as with religion), you are saying that you WANT to be a U.S. citizen because you believe in certain principles, actions and thoughts the U.S. makes. If you didn’t, you would quit the group and go elsewhere where you felt more welcome.

    It sounds like to me you’re just having difficulty explaining yourself when you’re under fire. This whole “they’re picking on us” mentality is a little centrist and not a very mature argument to make when you run out of answers.

    • Kirk Longuski

      Wait, _most_ Americans can’t talk intelligently about American politics? I’d like to see your reference for that.

  • Erinsbagley

    Chelsea I am also living in Paris right now, attending an international university – I can’t tell you how much I agree. The fact that ‘the golden rule” (wow that’s so AMERICAN of me to pull out) doesn’t apply here is the difference – the concept of treating people how you want to be treated is something I was raised with in California. But I feel like in France (I can only speak to my experience here) there is no concept of this, and that people don’t really see a problem with asking blunt questions. 

    Living and working in another country is a great experience, but being an American definitely offers a unique perspective on this lifestyle. While you cannot single-handedly reprimand everyone who treats you (us) this way, you can implicitly try to persuade people to think about how they come across to others. I think through that you can kill two birds with one stone: change perceptions of the Arrogant American on the one hand, and hopefully make the questionner think twice next time he imposes preconceptions on the next American (or any foreigner) he meets.

  • Marc

    A terrible, holier-than-thou article. EVERY tourist who goes out of his country meet some prejudiced opinions, get over it. In details :

    This is completely wrong :
    “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 ” Um, no … If you say that, you have a nod.

    This one :
    “and will go out of their way to congratulate you on just having been born in such a great country” is just by people who want to sell something to you. You’re being naïve.

    “Why would you want to go there,” they’ll ask, “when there are so many other great countries out there?” … this kind of “they” only exist in your mind.

    “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” … again, no one is expecting that. People expect you to defend your opinion(s) whatever they are.

    ” … It would make them feel uncomfortable and out-of-place. We just wouldn’t do it.” … Come on … just ask any tourist who had a discussion with Americans in the USA, the same happens all the time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503195132 Hana Graham

       “Why would you want to go there,” they’ll ask, “when there are so many
      other great countries out there?” … this kind of “they” only exist in
      your mind.

      Really? That happens to me all the time. I’m asked to answer for all of America’s sins at nearly every social gathering I attend.

      Don’t be a douche.

      • Marc

        You’re missing my point on two levels : I’m not saying it’s not happening, I say that it happens to ALL of us whatever the origin/country/religion etc. You think you’re an exception because US culture/politics permeates a lot of others, but no.

        Second level : someone tells you, as a USA citizen, why you want to go back to your country ? Seriousy ?

        If you go out of your country, you will be prejudiced. Thicken your skin or stay home, stop whining.

    • Erinsbagley

      I think it’s just a really tricky subject and definitely hard to generalize – but I have experienced everything written about in the article. By no means is every European this way, but it definitely happens and I’ve had very different reactions when people thought I was European and not American. Your counterfactual comments bring up possibilities but are a bit hypocritical: you’re generalizing as much as you argue that one should not generalize. 

    • Wdeanis

      Marc, you’re proving her point in your arguments. You’re marginalizing her for talking about her experiences by calling her tone holier-than-thou, telling her she has just made up the fact that people criticize one’s choice to go to the US (I had that experience too). You jumped all over her case for addressing prejudices against American tourists, which is, of course, the exact issue she brought up.

      Don’t be a doucher.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503195132 Hana Graham

    THANK YOU.

  • Rosie

    I understand, but we aren’t all lobbing stones!

  • http://nathiuria.tumblr.com Nathali

    I understand your point and I reckon you are one of the few people who actually stop and think about WHY the rest o the world feels like that about the USA. That’s good…

    I don’t dislike USA. Or  Michael Bay movies. They can be entertaining! Stereotypes suck, but there’s a general ‘obliviousness’ towards everything that happens in the rest world that kinda created this image and that hasn’t really changed. And it doesn’t seem like it will anytime soon.

  • Nishant

    Well, personally, I’ve faced a LOT of questions myself about where I’m from (India), relating to culture, traditions, media-spread notions etc, and I know how some can just piss you off. I guess some people ARE just trying to poke and prod until they hit a soft spot.

    “…and we’re not Michael Bay movies.” – this line says a lot!

    • famore

      “Did your parents get arranged marriage-d? Ha ha!”.

      Morons. 

      • Nishant

        hahaha. there we go! :)

  • Ally

    Love this. How very true it all is. When I traveled abroad two years ago, I was almost embarrassed to admit I was from the States, which I realize now is silly. Except, of course, when I was in Egypt and Morocco. Canada was just a safer “home country” to mention. But I completely agree with this. I would never go back to Greece and harp on the people about their economic downturn. And I can’t be expected to answer to all of our country’s missteps. Thanks for article. I would say that it was “thoughtful,” but really, I’d be a walking cliche. :)

  • Annon

    Actually, no. Valid in theory but not in real life.

    Americans has one of the most nationalistic and holier-than-thou attitudes. Obviously not *all* Americans are like that but a significant portion are, especially compared to other countries. 

    Other countries make their presidents and prime ministers take public transportation, shovel snow, and criticize their governments for lacking behind in x, y, and z. Yes, there are some countries that are even more uptight or zealous than USA, but the large majority (especially in highly developed European countries) will be way more eager to take criticism in stride if you want to talk to them about it. 

  • Eve

    I just wrote an extremely similar rant after returning from traveling abroad earlier in February. What drives me the craziest is the hipocracy of making abraisive and ignorant comments about a person based on your assumption that, because of the country they come from, they most likely ignorant and abraisive. Also, I’ve had to explain the whole, “Dude, you guys, G. Bush lost the popular vote the first time. That means that more than 50% of the country didn’t think that was a good idea. I was part of that majority.” so many times that I’m starting to feel like a stuck tape.
     
    I’m not a patriotic person. I have problems with a lot of things my country does. But growing up somewhere  where I do not always agree with what my government is doing has forced me to understand that no one is defined by their goverment or by the color of their passport. I have met ignorance and violence in my country, yes. But I have also met tolerance, compassion, sensativity, perception, and brilliance. And I know enough to know that no matter where I travel in the world, I will meet all of these things there, as well. (Which is not to say there are no differences between different places, just that there is diversity everywhere.)

  • CUinNYC

    I support freedom.

  • Cameron

    As a Canadian I think I may be able to offer an external perspective. when I meet an American I frequently make a quip about Bush or gay marraige or health care. This, admittedly, is unfair to the individual it’s being said to. However, the reasoning behind it is mainly due to the USAs overwhelming patriotism. It’s riddled throughout all of your media. The use of the term ‘the land of the free’ is downright ignorant; what portion of the world is not free? Your country is remarkably torn on every issue under the sun, yet on an international level you stand strong that your country is the best on the planet. So when I get the chance to, I say something, because it makes me feel like perhaps it will keep you, as a country, grounded.

    • James

      I just want to answer your question “What portion of the world is not free?”  In short, about 75% of it. A billion people in China are not free (single party system, overwhelming censorship, absurd human rights).  Women in the Middle East are not free (See The Stoning of Soraya M.)  In Africa, people are not free (ethnic cleansing, famine, colonialism).

      As much as people complain about America, the truth is, people here do whatever they want.  I came from a country where looking at a police officer wrong might lead to a beat down.  Here, people can occupy parks, berate law enforcements, block trading ports yet it’s all protected by the law.

      America has problems, and some of us are jerks, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty damn good place to be, and the people here built it.  That’s something to be proud of.

      • Guest

        “Free” is a subjective term. Read enough political theory from Ancient Greece to modern times and you’ll realize that “free” is not simple to define nor exemplify.

      • Goatboy

        “Here, people can occupy parks, berate law enforcements, block trading ports yet it’s all protected by the law.”

        Really? Like Zuccotti Park, where everyone was evicted, mirroring similar events around the country? Like the Oakland port blockade, which led to 27 arrests (also; 20 arrested in Houston, 4 in San Diego, tear gas in Seattle)? Like the students who were pepper sprayed for peacefully sitting down at UC Davis? Freedom is also extraordinarily relative in the USA; it becomes progressively more difficult to travel, find employment, obtain business loans etc. if you are Arabic, East-Indian, Muslim, native… There also remains a massive gender imbalance in all branches of government.

        It’s also incredibly myopic and ignorant to call an entire continent like Africa ‘not free’ when there are many African nations where people are free (9, according to the Freedom House Index, along with many ranked ‘partly free’). Particularly when you say ‘colonialism’ is to blame, as if the US wasn’t directly responsible for contributing to the lack of freedom in many African nations, as if the US itself wasn’t founded on a pervasive and brutal white supremacist philosophy that led to the genocide of the continent’s indigenous population.

      • matt good

         thank you! especially for the part about africa

  • Bridget

    Look, everyone should have a right to feel patriotic about their country. I lived in Ireland for six months and had nights where people fondly asked about New York, and even one night when a very drunk man started yelling at me for starting the war in Afghanistan. I didn’t take it personally seeing as though he was about six whiskey’s in and because my name doesn’t happen to be George W. Bush. The bartender quickly jumped in and started apologizing for this man and I had to quickly stop him because I didn’t take offense to it. Look, the USA ,as some have pointed out, isn’t perfect. In fact, no country really is (except perhaps those in the Nordic Region). What I believe Chelsea is rightfully pointing out is that people in our country tend to be the brunt of many jokes abroad. At one point overseas, I contemplated telling people I was Canadian because EVERYONE loves Canada in Europe. I happen to as well, but that is besides the point. What I’m trying to say is, it depends on which American you meet, but to generalize is not only wrong, but offensive, and that seems to be the case. However, if you’re lucky enough, you meet great people from all over the world who generally are inquisitive about where you’re from and what the United States is all about. If you represent yourself well, people might change their opinion about where you’re from. Sometimes all that requires is just a pint of Guinness. Lastly, I would like to say that by living abroad, I wound up appreciating my country more. That is why traveling is so important. 

    • http://theboxofficejunkie.com Reebee7

      How do those Nordics do it?!?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=604840365 Joey Navarrete

    I am an American, but I’ve never lived in the US except for a 2 years (not consecutively). Oddly enough, I never felt American myself, but when it came time to go to apply for college, everyone certainly praised the advatanges of having a US passport. Yes, it certainly is a privilege to have such a citizenship, you have the benefit of voting in elections that might determine American foreign policy for the next four years. But I completely understand why the attacks on Americans, and I could personally give a plethora of reasons as to why react in a negative way when someone introduces themselves as an American. I was in college for a semester in the mid-west, and one of the reasons I dropped out and am looking for colleges in Europe is because honestly I did not want to be surrounded by the behavior of small town people. Sure it’s a stereotype, but most of the time it applies fairly well. 

  • Martin

     I’ve
    experienced some of while abroad, but it happens domestically, too.  I’m native to the Virginia
    suburbs of DC and still live there, but in spite of everything the area has to
    offer, I found myself “answering” for the adventures of erstwhile DC mayor Marion
    Barry to people who live elsewhere in the US.

     

    Oddly,
    during my last trip overseas, I felt like a couple of my Irish traveling
    companions were defending GWB policies to this appalled American.  

    • Martin

       Sorry about the pagination.  It was a copy/paste mishap

  • Dole

    Nazi Literature of the Americas

  • Guest

    One of the biggest problems that the Arrogant American has is that s/he have little or no ability to self-deprecate and take the exasperated questioning of foreigners with a grain of salt. 

    Besides, Italians are among the first to ridicule their own country and run with the stereotypes. It’s in their blood. 

    • blue.

      The Arrogant American as opposed to the Normal American, right?  Because almost all the Americans I know are perfectly capable of poking fun of their own country.

      • Guestropod


        Because almost all the Americans I know are perfectly capable of poking fun of their own country.”

        No, Americans hate making fun of America.  That’s why The Daily Show never got off the ground.  

  • Karey Graham

    As an American currently living in China, I think this article is a bit silly. It is true, much of the garbage you get for being American will come from other English-speakers (most of the time from New Zealanders, I don’t know what it is). They love to talk about our silly popular culture, blazing guns foreign policy of the last 10 years, how long it took for us to get someone who is not middle aged and white into the White House, and how American football players are wimps because they play with pads on. Very rarely is it malicious, but the times that it is, so what? If you aren’t able to shrug it off and accept that sometimes your country makes mistakes, maybe you should stay the hell out of anywhere other than America. Yes, you can have a mature, educated discussion with people from other nationalities without a “I know, I know” look on your face. You can defend being an American without getting your panties in a bunch. Grow up and travel and learn to deal with people who may not have the same viewpoint as you about America the Great.

    • Validemail

      Its funny because Chinese domestic policy is as bad as US foreign policy h4h4

      • Bridget

        Yeah, I’d probably start with Syria. 

      • Karey Graham

        Before you get on your domestic policy high horse, believe it or not Chinese folks are generally pretty proud of their country and don’t live in the straight up Commie steel curtain collectivist society most Americans think it is.

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