I spent last semester in the tiny, frozen nation of Estonia–an experience which drastically shifted my understanding of nationhood. During this time, I found that we as Americans have a misconstrued identity, which needs to be fixed. I was hucked in a large, penitentiary-esque dormitory which was bursting with several hundred international students. In a way, Raathuse 22 (affectionately dubbed the Rat House) was a microcosm of the world–a mini U.N. where each of us represented our home countries and held expectations concerning everyone else.
Sure enough, no one disappointed, and the place was frequently a circus of stereotypes. Wine-soaked, fuzzy Italians roamed the halls, yelling about pasta and giving out unwanted bear hugs. Silent Turks lounged in the smoking room, puffing their hookahs like pashas of old, as belly-dancing music leaked under the door. The Germans competed by blaring ultra-hip techno, interrupting the beat periodically to shout, “Ja, das ist gut!” Mulleted Russians in striped track suits and Russianettes in mini-skirts guzzled “водка” in the snow. The Belgians did …well, whatever Belgians are known for doing.
In this cultural dog show, we Americans were expected to jump through our hoops as well. I experienced this first-hand at the grand finale of orientation week, which landed the internationals in Zum Zum, a groovy club near the city center. I spent the evening bouncing around the crowded bar, meeting people and swapping stories. At one point, a bleary-eyed local ran up, pushed past my friends and threw his arms around my shoulders. I’d never seen him before in all my days, and he gave me quite a start. “I’ve heard of you!” he slurred, breathing alcohol into my face. “You’re the American who’s not fat and can read a world map!” He asked if I wanted to hear his best Texan accent. I did. “Yeehah! I drink beeeeerrrrr. I drive mah’ truck. I shoot mah’ doooggg.”
In Estonia, there was a dormant sense that our national stereotypes were self-imposed–some kind of charade. In one less-than-coherent conversation with my shirtless flat-mate, he admitted to me, “You know, when I am here, I feel that I must be more Italian. When I am at home in Milan, I am not this loud–I do not dance this much.”
Truthfully, I found myself conforming in a somewhat similar, albeit clothed, fashion. My “howdy” became more frequent, my ‘Merican accent snappier, my waves a little more gregarious. In these first few weeks, I think that it became simpler to group each other (and ourselves) by certain standards of what it meant to be [insert nationality here]. Granted, this cookie-cutter identification wore off with time. Still, the experience led me to reflect on this “American-ness” that was expected of me and Brittney (OMG!) from Kansas. After all, I’ve never shot my dog, nor have I sponsored a coup in Central America (yet); but I was nonetheless ascribed these traits.
It became apparent that, to a certain degree, we were allowing the stereotypes … and perhaps crafting them. In this respect, I believe that we have a huge role in shaping our own image.
I think that, as Americans, we have an unhealthy perception of ourselves (as citizens) and our country’s role in the world (as the last-remaining superpower). It seems that we fluctuate between the two extremes of jingoism and self-disparagement. It’s either, “U.S.A.! Heck yeah! The blessed offspring of Jesus and George Washington, destined to bring democracy to the Godless heathen!” or “America … neo-imperialist pig-machine, intent on harvesting foreign babies for their oil … or just for the fun of it.”
Of course, these examples are meant to be facetious. Nonetheless, this is the type of rhetoric we frequently yoke ourselves to. When Señor Barack Obama became president, many said “This is it! We can finally fix our reputation in the world!”
Indeed, our dear leader has scrubbed our face considerably, and has a Nobel Prize to prove it. However, it is ultimately our responsibility to define what it means to be American. Never in history has a generation had so much opportunity or ease in traveling and cultural exchange. You and I could take out a loan today and be in Shanghai or Vladivostok tomorrow.
For this reason, it is important that we strike a balance between this excessive patriotism and self-loathing. Sure, our nation is far from perfect and we’ve done some things that should make all of us wince (Ronald McDonald), but much progress and good has also resulted from our short history (Star Wars). If we can recognize both sides of the coin and begin sorting out our identity at home, embracing our eccentricities and improving our faults, we can positively redefine what it means to be an American.