Friends very often ask whether I feel myself to be American or whether I’m English yet; and I find I always stammer a bit, and hedge.
Do I feel like an American?
I don’t know.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Colorado, so you could say I’m definitely American. But it also means that every post 18-year-old thing I’ve done has been carried out on foreign soil. My childhood was American: Thanksgiving, baseball, and some kind of vague but persistant instinct to salute and tear up when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner.
But my adulthood has been British: married life, university, career and (the more I think about it) mindset. Even using the word “foreign” is difficult: I often think of the US as a foreign country. I say “we” when I talk about England playing rugby, but also “we” when I think I’m correcting a misconception about America. I’ve caught myself saying “we” meaning “Americans” and “we” meaning “Brits” in the same sentence. I suppose I’m grateful I don’t also have to say “oui” to include my family name in my confused national identity.
Politically, I seem to see the US as something foreign, something other than mine. And I’ve felt this recently like no other time while watching stories about the “Tea Party,” and the bludgeoning of the American progressive movement at the previous mid-term elections. I supported Obama two years ago almost entirely because I saw him as the best candidate for America’s perception abroad. Europe does not understand conservative America, it cannot see the charm in folksy anecdotes and it cringes when Sarah Palin speaks. It’s as foreign to the rest of the world as a pungent delicacy or disinclination to queue. So, regardless of what I may or may not consider to be reasonable US domestic policy, I can see that certain aspects of American culture do not translate well. Obama translates well: his administration simply makes more sense to the rest of the world, while still being hopefully and enthusiastically American.
A conversation on Facebook brought this into focus when a friend asked how America is perceived abroad. I hope that my own position might help others understand both cultures better, but I’m also more aware than ever that my own perception is confused. I hope what follows might help both of understand America from outside.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the way the US is understood is that it isn’t, but people feel they do. Through TV, music, film and multi-national organisations (Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC etc), many people in the UK think they are familiar with American culture. This is probably true in reverse: through music, TV formats, film and a vague feeling of historical connection. Through media, ideas like: rich, racially-tense, belligerent, generous, loud, capitalistic, introspective, neurotic, extraverted and untraveled are associated in the British mind with America.
This sense of familiarity can make it difficult to explain that the US is extremely heterogeneous. Its political, racial, cultural, historical and geographic differences would make the average European’s head spin. These are differences a European would experience through travelling across different countries, not through a single nation. It’s hard to express adequately to a British audience how far apart say: Seattle and New Orleans are culturally, or that New York City is hugely different even from the rest of New York State (though this may resonate with London, which is also very different from anywhere outside the M25).
But, there is something about being American, about resonating with a strong national ideal that is certainly seen. The US is paradoxically very American, despite its diversity. There’s a patriotism and an optimism that is understood but is confusing: it’s admired and distrusted at the same time.
American foreign affairs have been watched with extreme discomfort and apprehension: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were extremely controversial in the UK. Tony Blair’s decision to take the UK into combat without the remit of the UN was seen as following too closely in America’s wake. A lot of the satire here from a few years ago featured Tony Blair as a self-conscious lacky to George Bush’s violent and bumbling foreign policy.
Social divisions within the US are noticed but not understood. Coming from a relatively poor part of the US, it’s difficult to hear people talking about rich Americans as if there are no other kinds. I don’t know if this is something that’s completely part of the stereotype, but it’s probably safe to say that although the US is certainly relatively rich, the difference between rich and poor are huge and not necessarily understood outside the States—or inside, for that matter.
It is probably true that American culture contains something in particular that is difficult for the British to like: it takes itself seriously. I think that Americans generally have a higher opinion of their own culture than the British do of theirs. That’s not to say that Brits aren’t proud to be so, but that they seem to be more tempered and also make light of the foibles they know about. A lot of British humour, for example, is self-deprecating and makes fun of itself for how it must be perceived abroad. Americans more easily default to seeing the rest of the world as foreign, and seeing itself from another perspective is harder. This, even as I type it, brings out another conflict, however. It is probably more true of “middle America”—of the South, the MidWest and the Southwest—than it is of the coasts. But, I do think it is broadly applicable to American culture as a whole.
Some truths are better understood, but still only partially: America is seen as not caring about its poor because of its system of non-public healthcare provision and social services. It’s shocking to people that anyone would have to pay for emergency medical treatment, or be saddled with debt through misfortune. The American misunderstanding of socialism is seen as silly: anything socially beneficial is seen in the US almost instantly as socialism (this is something that’s at least true in the conservative parts of the US) and therefore evil. I don’t think most Americans know the difference between socialism and liberalism or progressivism. It’s not a distinction I made very well until far more recently than I care to admit.
It’s probably true that the average Brit knows far more about America than the average American knows about just about anywhere else. In a pub this very week, I overheard a conversation which ended with an old standby of fireside bollocks-merchants that happens to be unfortunately true: most Americans don’t have passports. America is introspective, putting America first, and not fully understanding that the rest of the world doesn’t really see it that way. It’s probably the case (I don’t have any statistics to hand) that more Brits have met Americans than Americans have met non-American.
People who travel to the US, or who meet many Americans will be more familiar with the complexity of being American. They may be likely to say that Americans are generous, hospitable, friendly and gregarious, as well as shockingly ignorant of the rest of the world. I have heard some hugely funny stories-one even included me, when one of my relatives asked my wife what language she spoke in London!
British travellers to America often talk about friendly waiters and portion sizes being shockingly huge. On my last trip, after ordering a steak, I tried to work out how they had mistaken my order for a single meal for a request to feed a family of four.
People can only see through the lenses they have access to, I guess, and the things that bring America into focus come through pop music, movies, large companies, TV and news. America cannot be ignored by the rest of the world: it’s too big and has too much economic influence. So it’s covered in world news, and it’s talked about in pubs. I think that through its huge presence, and by travelling more, many Brits probably do understand many of the differences I’ve outlined above. But I think that even many well-traveled Brits find it hard to see from the perspective of Middle America.
I’ve found it helpful writing this, because it’s shown me something very important about the way I think. I feel American sometimes, and feel familiar with it. But I don’t feel at home there or with the unqualified label of “American”. It’s very like walking past an old house: you immediately remember what it’s like to live there, but you don’t recognise the flowers or the dog. It’s under new management, and it feels odd to trespass.