Tuesday, June 21, 2005


I’ve always admired about Americans what others around the world tend to resent – their ambition, moxie, gall. It’s almost a brand of assertiveness that says: This is who I am, and if you don't like it, tough. (In varying degress of intensity.)

Before living abroad, the only time I actually, like, spoke to Americans was when I travelled to Disney World or Myrtle Beach, and the conversations one has at age seven or fifteen are not usually ones conducive to contemplation of nationalistic similarities (or differences).

Now that I've lived abroad for a great while I've picked up the habit of studying different people from different cultures and trying to figure what they often tend to do, and why. I’m always amazed when the Americans I meet just commence to, well, announce their political beliefs, their moral beliefs, their personal beliefs, whatever, right off the bat, without even knowing my nationality, or whether I might be offended. Canadians are more cautious; we feel people out. Americans dive right in. That always jars me, every time. (I remember one American who came to my old university sitting in the teacher's lounge -- or our version of a teacher's lounge -- just ranting and raving about Bush, and what a prick he was, and he didn't know if we were Americans, or Republicans or Democrats, and I suspect he wouldn't have cared one way or the other. He was going to say what he was going to say, period.)

On a (kind of?) related note, the other day I was in an Internet café and an Asian-American girl was trying to break some change.

“What are you trying to break?” I asked.

“A Benjamin,” she said.

“I’m Canadian,” I said. “I don’t know how much that is.”

She probably heard my accent and assumed I was American. That happens all the time here. I’ll ask somebody where they are from and they’ll say ‘Chicago’ or ‘Detroit’ or ‘Los Angeles’ – not ‘the United States’. Most other foreigners tell you the country they’re from; Americans tend to name the city, or the state, assuming either: a) you’re American, or b) you’ll know the city or state, regardless.

This doesn’t bother me the way it bothers other foreigners. I've learned that every culture has its stereotypes, that a lot of the stereotypes are true, and that, most importantly of all, you really gotta cut people some slack, people.

The reality is, especially in Cambodia, Americans have a somewhat poor reputation, one that has more to do with their own individual policies than the policies of their country. Some language schools or universities won’t even hire Americans. Why? Because they do their own thing. They don’t play the game. They won’t adapt. They tend to have a fixed view of things, are stubborn as hell, and cut loose when things don't go their way. (That's what people in managerial positions here have told me, anyway.) When I started teaching at the University of Cambodia at its inception, four of the people in high management positions didn’t last longer than six months at the place; a few didn't even last three. All of them quit, and all were American.

This is not an indictment by me -- I swear. I just find Americans, well, curious; they are somewhat similar to Canadians in tone and temperament but are possessed by a confidence, an assertive poise, that Canadians simply don’t have. I can usually tell within five seconds of talking to a person over here if they’re Canadian or American, and accent has nothing to do with it; attitude does. A boldness to their personalities. The world as a whole has been so bombarded by American media that Americans themselves, as people, as individuals, have become lost in the electronic morass of their cinematic substitutes; trying to figure out who they actually are, divorced from any pre-conceived media conceptions, has been difficult, but I'm betting that 'boldness' would definitely be on my top-three-adjective-list-of-American-character-traits.

I’m thinking about all of this because I’m reading an old hardcover book I picked up in a used bookstore over here called Citizen Nader, written in 1972, chronicling the remarkable rise of that quintessentially American rabble-rouser Ralph Nader. He had barely been on the scene a decade when the book was written, and he was already a legend.

I say ‘quintessentially’ American because, to me, a Canadian, Nader possess what I sense most Americans possess – a form of boldness that us Canucks lack. Nader does his own thing. He doesn’t give a flying fuck what anybody thinks. I absolutely agreed with his presidential ambitions, and I found it disgusting that everybody was telling him to drop out of the race in order to save the nation from Bush and his cronies. If America is what it purports to be, what it presents itself to be, then Nader had every right in the world to run for President; he had an obligation to do so, one could say. And to all those who said that he was ‘stealing’ votes from Gore, I say: Do people not have their own minds and their own intentions? People can vote for whoever the hell they want to vote for, and if they choose Person A over Person B, you can’t fault Person A simply because he’s in the race to begin with. If anything, you should fault Person B for not putting up a more attractive argument.

I’m rambling. I tend to do that when I write or talk about something that not a lot of other people agree with. The truth is, all of the Americans I have met, both in Japan and Cambodia, have been good, decent, likeable people. Jon Stewart was dead wrong on The Daily Show when he recently responded to Russel Crowe’s plea for more Americans to travel, to see the world, by saying: “Dude, if we traveled, people would hate us even more.”

A funny line, sure, but I don’t think it's necessarily the case. I would hate to think that that's the case, anyway. As Crowe also said, the only advertisement Americans have for America are themselves. Period. Americans have gotten a bum rap based on the actions of their warlords back home. Americans as individuals – like the Swedes I’ve met, the Finns I’ve met, the Cameroons I’ve met, the Filipinos I’ve met – have something to offer to the world. (And to me.) Something different and uniquely their own. Something we can, if we choose, even seek to emulate. The more Americans travel, the more other people around the world will see them as people, with the same faults and virtues that we all possess, the better we'll all be.

In the end, I'm not sure if Canada could produce somebody like Ralph Nader. Somebody with that much chutzpah. That much passionate, informed rebelliousness. Living abroad, you will find out how (insert nationality here) you really are; I can see Canada more clearly from a distance, its people and its form, and I wonder about the possibility of a Nader-like Canuck. Are we doomed to forever be the emotional and psychological denizens of our home and native lands? Can we sample and integrate the qualities of other nationalities that we'd like our own to wield?

Not sure.

But living abroad, I've learned, is a hell of a good way to try and find out.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Scott.
I found myself chuckling in rememberance of the American boldness I've encountered. I, being the 'quintessential' embodiment of the polite, cautious Canadian with sensitive feelers poised at all times to detect mental status vibes from other sentient beings, kind of envy the bold Americans their ability to get things done. Example: Dave Eggers and his Valencia St. school/pirate supplies shop in San Francisco.


mattlv said...

I'm American. I travel a lot. If I meet a non-native English speaker, and they ask where I'm from, I say "America." (Yes, I know this annoys some Canadians who think we should say "United States")

If I meet a native English speaker, and if I have been speaking with them for at least 15 seconds before they ask where I'm from, I will usually answer "Las Vegas." Yes, I have had a few people comment that they dislike the fact that Americans answer such a question by naming their city or state, not theri country. The reason I do that is not out of arrogance. It's partly because when an Englishman or Australian asks where I'm from and I say "America," I often get a semi-sarcastic response back like "Obviously," "No kidding," etc. So it's a no win situation, overly sensitive people are insulted no matter how you answer the question.

But I've concluded that normally, if a foreign, native English speaker asks me "Where are you from," they usually mean "Where in America are you from," so I answer accordingly. Note that if I ask where they are from, and they answer "Manchester" or "Perth," that's fine with me.

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