I am 9 months into my time here in South Africa. For the most part, that means I’ve gotten so used to the things that once shocked me that I don’t even see them anymore. This is just a consequence of living somewhere- and they aren’t all bad. I no longer notice the huge looming mountain tops around town that used to awe me every day. I no longer am taken aback at the beggars following me on my way home from the grocery store, and in fact have had some of my most successful conversations in Afrikaans with them. I no longer notice that the internet is slow, or that races don’t interact much, or how every single house here has a fence or wall around its entire exterior. Surprisingly, as someone who considers themselves relatively tough-skinned when faced with insults to my country, the one thing that to this day has not lost its shock-factor are the feelings of South Africans against America and Americans.
Now, I get it—“it’s all in good fun”. “It’s just a joke”. Trust me, I can take some puns at Americans. In fact, they annoy me a lot too when I’m traveling. They’re unnecessarily loud, especially when they know others are listening. They’re ignorant- a stereotype that is very accurate and which I’ve even noticed in my own lack of knowledge. They travel in huge groups and don’t interact with locals despite having come all the way to [fill in location here]. So yes. I’m not shooting stars and stripes out of my extremities.
However, I am also “proud to be an American” in my own way. I have traveled enough to see the many opportunities that having grown up in the United States has provided me, how many opportunities I was allowed purely because of my citizenship, how much our country has contributed to world history and innovation, and how many amazing cities and states we have. I was offered scholarships for study, to meet people of different upbringings. I never had to worry about receiving schooling, food, shelter, or worry that my politicians weren’t watching out for my general welfare. I ran around my neighborhood as a child, and knew all of my neighbors. And national holidays were, to me, a thing to look forward to and to celebrate having grown up in the States, and still are.
I truly believe that despite what the world way think- that America is culture-less, that that itself is an impossibility. When you meet an American abroad, the entire reason you bond is due to a shared culture—a point of commonality despite whatever differences you may have. I’m not saying it’s the most sophisticated culture—our commonalities might be cereal brands we can only get at home, peanut butter sandwiches, pancakes and our favorite 90’s cartoons, or a common university that you share friends and family at. We bond in going to football games and picking pumpkins at Halloween and sitting down for a meal at Thanksgiving. I think Americans share a lot more in common than they think. And I personally am tired of feeling that I need to be ashamed of my nationality. I am often hit with the phrase, “But Claire, you’re a cool American” or comments on me being the exception to the rule, as if the other 316 million people are innately bad, just by being born in my country.
What’s interesting is that in traveling you tend to run into one of two Americans—regardless of age. There are those who are bazooka-ing you with patriotism and will come to the defense of legitimately any claim against the United States. Then there are those who have picked up on ill feelings towards the US and hate on their country before anyone else does. These both seem like bad options and sort of ingenuine. I think it’s important to strike a balance, with any country, between your pros and cons and to be open to someone else’s respectful opinion. Most importantly, I think it is important to try to speak on behalf of the general population- always remembering that you may be the only American someone ever speaks with and whatever you say may be associated with your country. For example, I have an American friend who likes to rave about how many firearms he and his father own whenever someone approaches him about the issue of gun control in the US. What could have been a productive conversation on media and stereotypes and the diversity of people in the US turns into a game on how intensely someone can fit a stereotype. You can see him getting the shocked reactions he aimed for and you almost witness in their eyes that a stereotype has been solidified forever. Those are chances to act as the middle man- to say what your family does but to also say that plenty of people don’t own firearms and that the reason there aren’t any laws restricting them is due to the NRA’s political influence. This may shed some light on information that foreigners do not know. But many, instead, just tend to shoot to one or the other side of American representation.
Despite always wanting to be a representative of the general public of the States, I’ve run into more than a few snags here in South Africa. I never suspected that anti-american feelings would be worse here than in Germany, but they are. 9 months in and almost daily someone, a professor or fellow student, says something against my country—not to me but in my presence. Most of it is ignorant- assuming were all idiots, we eat fast food 24-7, are all obese, racist, greedy, etc. Rarely do I get approached with a mature argument on political or economic grounds- rather people take easy hits to America’s belly. But sometimes the issues are more serious, such as when I was yelled at for what was going on in Ferguson and told by a South African that “if American can’t even figure out their racial issues, how can they criticize South Africa for theirs?” And I’m not going to lie, it gets old. I can only softly smile and say, “Oh, we're not all like that” or the most common “That’s only in the movies” so many times. I start to wonder why if I insulted a majority Muslim country or an east Asian country I would be considered a bigot or insensitive, yet if I insult the US at every turn its considered socially acceptable. Especially in a country like South Africa, in which I could freely insult blatant inequality differences, racism, lack of education, or any number of other social issues- I don’t. So I find it entertaining at best but insulting at most that South Africans have been so apt to, despite obvious issues of their own, throw so much shade at the United States. Perhaps it is just easier to say, “Hey look over there! Look at how much they’re screwing up!” to distract people from domestic issues.
Essentially, the United States is the country I grew up in, and the one I will go back to. It is a country that, when all is said and done, I am proud to be a part of and proud to represent and which I wish people could experience for themselves to see how diverse it is. I don’t need to be a patriot to respect the amount my country has contributed to who I am and to my values. I suppose it is just difficult to identify with a country whose business is so publically broadcasted, whose movies and music is consumed by the world, and whose political decisions aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor mine.
I’m just realizing that solidifying how I feel to be an American abroad is one of my hardest challenges here.