Ever since I got here, I’ve been feeling the familiar internal struggle of identity.
Since being here, I find I’m regularly put in a position where I have to defend myself and my country. Most of what I’m asked when I converse with people is “why are Americans so full of themselves?” or “why are Americans so arrogant?”, or even, “why are Americans so dumb?”
I find I’m often treated as a sole representative of the entire nation, and not for the first time either. In Malawi and in South Africa, I’m often treated as the sole authority on the American viewpoint in the current Syria issue. Even when the Iraq War broke out in 2003, I was the target of a lot of criticism in a very anti-American atmosphere.
There’s something called the “ugly American” that tends to afflict parts of the world. An ugly American is one who, when traveling outside the U.S., focuses on getting drunk, being loud, boisterous, obnoxious, crass, belittling others countries and cultures, and all under the notion of a kind of paternalistic fatalism that “Americans know better than you.” Seeing an ugly American tends to elicit hatred and disdain for the U.S., and it’s no surprise that others who have seen an ugly American would treat me with similar disdain.
It’s strange for me really, seeing as how I had never even really lived in the U.S. until six years ago. Lately, I’ve been ruminating more and more on how and why I’ve chosen to identify with being an American, and more so about how that choice seems to be more consequential than I initially thought.
So, in the wake of disdain, I’ve started wondering, what exactly does it mean to be American? Is it about getting drunk and being boisterous, or is there something innately “American” that we should focus on when we go outside the U.S.? Is it about burgers, beer, barbeques, and belligerence, or is there something else that the U.S. stands for?
I’ve come to accept that disdain is probably how I’ll be treated by others when I travel, just because I am American. In that case, I find there’s only one thing to do: be the best of what it means to be American.
Proclaim the freedom inherent to all individuals in their choices, their beliefs, their speech, and their pursuit of happiness.
Treat all people of the world with respect in the knowledge that all are created equal.
Take a stand without fear and without prejudice for what is right, what is fair, and what is just.
That, I believe, is what it means to be American.