Paradoxically, I have thought more about “being American” in the past few months than I had in my entire life.
It’s what I introduce myself as. As such, it’s become one of my most well-known identities.
“Hi, I’m Anne! I’m American.”
It’s usually replied to with a comment about Americans. I can’t say that everyone I’ve met has had the same opinion on the United States. I can say that everyone I’ve met associates something with the U.S. and its people.
Some people assume I own a gun. Some people ask me if we only ever eat hamburgers. Other people think I spent my college days partying away in a dirty frat house, like the ones in the movies. Some people revere our pop culture, expecting that I meet celebrities in the street on a regular basis. Some people might assume I’m arrogant and entitled, overenthusiastic, naive, or that I didn’t learn French before coming here because “everybody speaks English.”
I have been met with all of these reactions, communicated to me in various forms. What this tells me is nothing conclusive about the views of Europeans on America, other than everyone I’ve met seems to have a view on it. What that tells me is that we have a privileged (or maybe not) position on the world stage, in that many people are watching us (but many others aren’t, let’s not get too assumptive).
There are, in my mind, two extreme approaches to process an incident through which one discovers a stereotype of the U.S., neither of which are all good or all bad:
A) Reject the USA, or its role in the world, and send everyone back home the message, “we need to improve our reputation abroad.” I have adopted this stance once in a while. It’s tempting for critical thinkers who enjoy reflecting on identities and the issues facing our nation/how we can eliminate them to work toward a better society (aka, liberal arts future grassroots movement champion kids). This position leads to becoming an expatriate and/or extreme political activist and/or considering oneself “basically French” at heart.
B) Reject everyone else and decide that life in America is better, compare everything to it and become immensely dissatisfied, count down the days until home. Argue that nobody sees the true diversity in America and that therefore their conclusions are untrue. This person moves back and criticizes the “other countries” that don’t have it as good as we do in the US of A. There is value to this viewpoint as well, in that the person recognizes what our privileges are as US citizens. (However, just so y’all don’t get me wrong, I do find this 2nd view pretty problematic.)
Here’s the approach I’ve eventually settled on:
There is truth in stereotypes. Question it, without rejecting or accepting it. Where is the truth? What does it say about US culture? What does it say about French culture? How can one inform the other?
I find myself staunchly between the two camps, trying constantly to see both sides. Maybe Americans think French people are rude because they try to give a French person a hug (like we do back home), not realizing that French people reserve hugs for intimate and familial relationships. Maybe French people think Americans don’t speak French because they’ve only met Americans who don’t speak French. Even if a stereotype has become generalized and extreme, it must have arisen from some primordial stereotypical act that someone witnessed at some point, and that analysis by an external source could be a window for us, as we travel, into what it means to be “American.”
We are all our own kinds of American. Sometimes my particular kind might confirm a stereotype, and sometimes it will disconfirm it for some unsuspecting Frenchman. But I’m not worried anymore about being or not being American, I am using how people analyze me to figure out my kind of American.
I do think that, back in America, we think that French people eat baguettes and cheese all the time, drink copious amounts of wine, and that rudeness and snobbery are somehow more common in France (but so are romance and sexiness). In short, all of France is reduced to Paris. There’s truth in that too, and falsity. They do eat a lot of cheese and baguettes, but most of the French people I’ve met have been just as warm and friendly as we’re used to, maybe even more authentically so sometimes. It’s all complicated.
The most important thing, to me, in coming here, was not to confirm or disconfirm these assumptions, but to gain a richer understanding of how and why we’re different. Sometimes I encounter the illusion (in Americans) that Western Europe is culturally the same as us, and that in going there we will not encounter as much difference as we might in a more exotic place. This is true in that our lifestyle was at some point based on theirs, and a lot of us have ethnic roots in Western Europe so we look similar. This is false in that even countries within “Western Europe” are, culturally and linguistically, vastly different from one another. Different languages bring different cultures with them. Different aristocracies, histories, roles in world wars, political and economic systems, culinary traditions…all of these make “Western Europe” vastly diverse, and totally different from the United States of America.
It is so fun to think about why those differences exist. Being here is about encountering difference, for me, for one reason: it makes us reflect on “the other,” reflect on ourselves, and come to new understanding of both. We can be more informed people about both sides. Being here is precisely about “thinking more about being American than I ever have in my life.”
And my identity conclusion? I’ll keep my “American” enthusiasm. But I could do with being more choosy about my cheese. 😉