On patriotism, travel

Today, as many will be aware, is the 4th of July and it is the seventh I have spent in Europe. Being overseas during this very patriotic, American holiday brings to focus how living outside of the USA has given me a different perspective on American patriotism.

I’m not one for patriotism, really. You probably wouldn’t find me at a “Freedom Fest”, even if I do enjoy fireworks. I don’t buy into the concept of “American exceptionalism”. The United States of America is one of many great countries on this planet, and like all countries and cultures it has its own faults and virtues. I do think that American culture — though this in itself is a tricky subject — is unique, but unique does not necessarily equate with “best”. British culture is unique. Austrian culture is unique. Thai culture is unique. No one system has the perfect government, perfect social system, perfect education, perfect anything. Some countries might provide better quality of life than others, but even that is a sliding scale. To be honest, the USA does not always rank highly in these lists, not when it comes to health care, maternity leave, or work/life balance.

At the same time, American culture is fascinating because it is simultaneously diverse and homogenous. Put a group of Americans in one room — some from southern California, some from northern California, from Florida, Texas, Main, Massachusetts, Kansas, Colorado, Alaska, Hawaii, and Ohio, for instance — and some will instantly hate each other…while also bonding over shared music, favourite television shows, how they all love Mexican food (and then the Californians and the Texans will argue over whose Mexican food is better). In a country as large as the United States, it can’t help but be a mosaic of diversity, and yet a shared language and shared media acts as the mortar linking these different groups together.

As I was discussing this with my friends in Vienna, a German and Icelandic couple, I thought also about how it is the 4th of July and here I am attempting explain “America” to two people who have never been there. I do think it is a shame that many Americans don’t own a passport and have never travelled abroad. Even so, I am often embarrassed by the Americans I do see travelling abroad. Why? Not only because travel is educational, fun, mind- and eye-opening, not just because American tourists come across as brash, loud, ignorant, and rude, but because Americans themselves can be America’s best ambassadors. What better way to counter the international reputation that Americans are stupid than to provide an example of an intelligent American traveling abroad?

In this way, perhaps, I am patriotic, and I would encourage other Americans to participate in this form of patriotism, too.

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