The Myth of the Ugly American

The day after 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde featured an article with the memorable title “We Are All Americans.” Almost 17 years later, one doubts any publication in Paris would offer such solidarity. The mainstream media love reminding us that global opinion of America has precipitously declined since the 2016  presidential election. Yet in another respect, Le Monde’s assertion still rings true—people the world over continue to view themselves as Americans, at least in potential. This reality became painfully clear to me while living overseas in Southeast Asia, where I noticed a peculiar consistency to how foreigners view the United States.

Despite the many caricatures of the bumbling, arrogant American tourist, I found most Americans to be deeply interested in understanding the characteristics and nuances of foreign cultures across Asia. The strong emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism at all levels of American academic institutions (as well as in much of the American media and Hollywood) has affected how we interact with foreign cultures. Americans traveling abroad generally presume other cultures are different from their own, and that other people see the world differently, interact differently, and value different things. Indeed, this is one of the main draws for us as Americans when contemplating traveling overseas—we want to experience something culturally new and exotic.

Tour guides know this and play it up, perhaps beyond the reality of la differance, often to such a degree that their culture appears almost otherworldly to American visitors. Countless Asians I met went to great lengths to explain how their particular culture was very different from America, and how it would require great time and energy for an American to truly understand and appreciate these divergences. In turn, I watched countless American tourists display remarkable humility and deference to these customs and beliefs. Obviously Asian tour guides understand how this paradigm works in their favor—the more exotic and “other” their culture appears, the more spellbound and respectful the Americans will be, and, of course, the more likely they’ll be to spend money.

But is this approach reciprocal? Are Asians and other peoples respectful towards, or even interested in, the nuances and complexities of American culture? Not particularly, I have found. Indeed, most of the non-Americans I met across Asia presumed they already knew most everything worth knowing about American culture and society. There’s a likely reason for this. As one CBS report noted:

Generations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America have grown up under the influence of the superpower U.S. and have felt awe and envy. America permeated their lives—through comics and Coke, through Hollywood and Neil Armstrong, and via the internet, iPhone and Facebook. It has been seen as the land of plenty, freedom and equality where Indian migrants could head behemoths like Google, Microsoft and Pepsi, and a South African could capture the imagination with an electric car.

Decades of successful commercialism have brought mainstays of American culture into the stores and homes of the rest of the world. No country in human history—not ancient Rome, colonial France, or the British Empire—has sought to impress its image upon the globe like the United States. Indeed, for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have exported not only our products, but our political and socio-cultural philosophy: democracy, rights-based law, and free markets, to name but a few. And after 75 years, we have significantly, if quite imperfectly, accomplished that mission. The “American experiment” has in many respects become the world’s experiment.

Yet the rest of the world often doesn’t understand America or appreciate its complexities. A close friend of mine, an Australian, described a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence that takes place in Appalachia: “Winter’s Bone.” Except the film doesn’t actually take place in Appalachia (properly pronounced, by the way, “APPA-LATCH-UH”). It’s about the Ozarks, about 700 miles away. Certainly the two places share commonalities—both, for example, were settled by Scots-Irish and German immigrants. But they are different regions and have different cultures. Bluegrass music wasn’t birthed in Arkansas.

The same can be said for other “provinces” across America. It’s easy to spot differences between a New Yorker and a Californian, or a native of Chicago and a native of New Orleans. The accent, the cuisine, the ethnic heritage, the mannerisms, and the regional histories remain significantly divergent, even in our era of mass media and modern travel. Alternatively, non-Americans often presume racism is peculiar to the South (thanks Hollywood!), largely ignorant of “white flight” and the deeply embedded bigotry that still plague Northern cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Thanks to the success of American commercialism, they are well familiar with American holidays and traditions like Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day. Yet by and large they have little concept of how any of this relates to America’s peculiarly Judeo-Christian heritage religious origins. At least for most Thais, there’s no debate about “putting Christ back in Christmas”—he was never there in the first place. In their celebrations of these holidays, as with the products they buy, foreigners often assume they are taking on aspects of American identity, effectively “becoming American.” This should not be.

As an American citizen, I cannot simply participate in a rite, purchase a product, or learn a language, and suddenly declare myself Italian, Nigerian, or Chinese. I cannot go to a country, get a job, and assume another nationality. As any diligent student of another culture will tell you, even after many years within a society carefully absorbing its language and mores, native inhabitants will still view you as an outsider. This natural, almost primordial tendency in man serves important functions for group cohesion, solidarity, and survival. And yet America in many respects has fostered a system that works against this. We’ve made it harder to maintain any sense of a shared American identity, from the city to the heartland, from the highest income brackets to the lowest, as recent socio-political developments have made clear. America today suffers in large part because we cannot agree upon what it means to be American, and whether or not that identity is something truly separate and unique from the world at large. As with the ancient Roman Empire in its decaying final centuries, we’ve sold our identity to the world, and now the world works to erode it.

There’s no easy answer or fix to this problem. As FDR once quipped: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” America is indeed a nation of the descendants of immigrants—even the Native Americans immigrated here thousands of years ago. This is certainly a source of strength for us, and it is hard to imagine an America without the contributions of those successive waves of Irish, Italian, and more recently, Latinos and Vietnamese, among many others. Moreover, this propensity for pluralism, so ingrained in our national history, is a direct rebuke to the opinions of citizens of many countries, who view the United States as “intolerant.”

Some traits still seem to bind us together as Americans, unique from other peoples. As that same CBS report observed: “Americans are also seen from afar as generous tippers, friendly, [and] uncomplicated.” Moreover, we are the “standard bearers of freedom, equality, creativity and technological power.” That, I suppose, is worth something, though I would argue that there must be a religious, spiritual, and/or metaphysical dimension to American identity. Despite the diversity of religious opinions and beliefs in our land, we still need some form of civic religion—some appeal to a transcendent source of life—to unite us. A belief in that “givenness” from above presumes life as a gift, and a subsequent “right” to participate in the common good. This, I’d propose, is more important than the many “rights”—be they to privacy, ownership of firearms, or sexual or gender identity—that define our contemporary debates.

One evening while living in Bangkok, my wife and I went on a date to a restaurant/bar that played American movies on a big projector screen. Upon entering, we were greeted by a friendly, Southeast Asian-looking man. As carefully instructed by other Southeast Asian natives, I carefully bowed and pushed my hands together (called a “wai”), and greeted him in Thai. He smiled and exclaimed “Hell, I’m not Thai, I’m Texan!” with the appropriate drawl. “Busted both my knees playing high school football. Made some good money with a startup company, and decided to cash out and try my luck at a restaurant in Bangkok. Y’all like burgers?” My wife and I spent the next few hours chatting about our shared American experience with a true Texan (of Vietnamese origin), munching down red meat while watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I have only incomplete answers to what defines a unique American cultural identity and how to preserve and cultivate it. But certainly what we experienced that night points to something about the American experience worth defending.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

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