As we start to close out 2014, I realize that I’ve traveled a lot this year – almost 100,000 miles by plane alone. This travels have taken me to a number of different countries.
As a well-educated, well-traveled American, it’s easy to be… well, a little apologetic for my country, sometimes. Our 250-ish year history as a country pales next to the centuries-old countries I’ve visited. We’re often the brash upstarts on the world stage, our power and influence often seeming to eclipse our maturity and experience.
I’m always amazed at how in-tune folks form other countries are with American politics, at least at a high level. They all know our President’s name, they know our political parties, and they know the basic issues we’re arguing about at the time. They can’t always fathom why we’re arguing about those things – and they often ask, politely, if I can explain the issues. In most of Western Europe, for example, residents find it inexplicable that we argue about something that they take as basic – like universal healthcare. I explain the history behind our situation, some of the different viewpoints, and point out that we’re not really one big, unified country so much as 50 strongly allied little countries – with all the sense of independence and difference that implies.
I sometimes worry about how US citizens are perceived by citizens of other countries. From the inside, I could see how others would view us as overly militant, possibly belligerent, and probably intolerant of diversity. Many of our citizens never travel outside their own towns, let alone to other countries – and I could see how we’d be viewed, at least in part, as backwater hicks. The sensationalist news feeds coming out of the US probably support those views – our own news rarely shows us at our best, of course.
But walk the streets of nearly any town and you’ll see a lot of familiar American icons: Nike. McDonalds. Reebok. Levis. Ford. Apple. Microsoft. Our brands are everywhere. Our music is everywhere, too, America having contributed some of the most lasting genres, like rock, jazz, and country-western. That’s not to say our culture is taking over – no, far from it. The countries I’ve visited still very much have their own identity, their own traditions, and their own brands. They have their own foods, their own favorite music, their own art. They’ve simply taken what they like about American culture, and blended it into their own lives. The US has been called the Great American Melting Pot; we’ve certainly leaked some of our blend into other peoples’ pots as well.
I took the time to ask a few random folks why so much American culture has been so readily adopted. I was initially surprised at how friendly everyone was – it’s easy to imagine Americans not being so friendly to foreigners, except that my own experience traveling our country shows that we’re all pretty damn hospitable. And the answers I got were fantastic, perhaps best summed up by the most concise one: “America is just cool.”
We’re still seen as a land of opportunity. “In Europe, it’s all been done. It’s all built up, and there’s just not a lot of reason to change anything. America is change. You’re always doing something difference, and you don’t care who does it.”
“You argue,” one person said – meaning it as a positive. “We all try to be so polite that nothing gets done, because nobody talks about the issues.” While that’s certainly not true in every country I visited, it’s notable that our penchant for argument and debate isn’t solely a bad thing.
My favorite response: “You’re like the loud friend someone invited to the party. You drank a bit too much, and you fell over a lot, and everyone rolled their eyes. But secretly they were really glad you were there.”
Watching cable news and listening to our politicians, it’s easy to forget how many friends America has across the world. It’s easy to forget that we are still seen as the home of the American Dream, and that the dream is very much alive. Nobody sees as as perfect, of course – but they certainly see us as a desirable set of friends.
And what friends we have. America may not be the greatest country on the Earth – and perhaps we never were the “greatest.” But there’s an old saying: You can judge a man by the company he keeps. If that applies to countries, then America is certainly one of the best, because we’re in the very best of company.