The American flags flying all over my neighborhood this week got me thinking about my younger years and how so many of the well-traveled twentysomething Americans I knew got off on bashing their own country. This anti-American attitude seemed especially popular among those who’d had one post-college romp around Europe and saw themselves as cooler than all of the working stiffs back home.
As a flight attendant for United, I was fortunate enough to fly all over the world and to live in London for three years. I quickly fell in love. Public transportation was clean and reliable, violent crime was minimal, and people didn’t air their laundry publicly. Even at rush hour, people were polite.
I was blown away by the fresh local produce I could buy at street markets. Oh, THAT’S what a tomato tastes like! Wait, potatoes have flavor? Even chain grocery stores sold preservative-free bread and juice, labeling the less tasty stuff we’re used to “long-life.” There, quality wasn’t sacrificed for convenience. Going out to dinner meant lingering over multiple courses and ending with conversation over a cup of coffee. No server ever dumped a check along with the main course in order to quickly turn the table. Of course, the loud Americans would call that bad service.
Looking at the U.S. as a resident of another continent was eye-opening. I saw Americans running around London wearing fanny packs filled, inexplicably, with dollars instead of pounds. I heard them complain loudly about bad British food while eating in tourist traps, and then complain more loudly when their cash wasn’t accepted.
I quickly began to see what so many people see — that the U.S. is full of loud-mouths obsessed with making money, buying cheap goods, suing people, carrying guns, and starting wars. (Thanks to so much violent crime at the time, I knew Britons and Frenchmen who were as afraid to visit the States as we are to travel to Mexican border towns.)
As time wore on, my outsider perspective began to show me other things about America that I didn’t notice while growing up. Yes, we fight and complain a lot, and publicly. But we also show joy. Oh how I missed seeing people laugh out loud on the street. Or even cry openly, only to be helped by a kind stranger who might look the other way in another country. On 9/11, a beggar huddled in a corner under a bridge saw me crying as I walked home. He looked up and astonished by my red, tear-soaked face said, “Chin up girl.” I sensed a substantial amount of judgment in the harshness of his voice. People in England just don’t go around crying in public.
They also don’t stand up for themselves like we do. Our American expectation for fairness might be unrealistic at times, and it might lead to too many lawsuits, frivolous or otherwise, but I’m thankful for a chance at justice should I need it. It killed me when an English friend’s employer refused to pay him $30,000 they rightfully owed in sales commission. I told him to sue. He shook his head and said, “You’re so American.” Yes. But at least I’m not out thirty grand.
Certainly, America is not entirely fair — not when in comes to education, or the justice system, or the workplace, and I’m ashamed as anyone of our country’s history of racism. I’m also proud of our Civil Rights movement. We fight about racism and sexism in this country, sometimes erring too far on the side of political correctness, sometimes on the side of all-out bigotry. But what I found in many other countries was a deeper, more insidious form of segregation that no one acknowledged. The less fortunate knew their place.
Whether or not we ever achieve equality, I’m proud that most Americans value it.
Even if our leadership is sometimes misguided, I am also proud of our military, which is largely made up of men and women who are willing to risk their lives to bring equality and freedom to others. Of course there are bad apples who shame our nation with crimes like those at Abu Ghraib, but as a military wife, I am blessed to spend my days surrounded by the majority — deeply good people who believe in something bigger than themselves. And when given the chance, I think most Americans find that in themselves as well. Just look at the donations sent to quake-stricken Haiti in 2010, and on a similar note, the amount of resources our country, and our military, spend responding to natural disasters around the world.
Since moving home, I have made it a point to complain loudly about the injustices in this country, but more often, I choose to appreciate its virtues. And these days, as a new mom, that even includes a fondness for groceries that don’t spoil.