What it means to be American

Although its true that, as rational individuals, we have the right to judge whatever we’d like, too often the subsequent judgments are made from a place of misunderstanding, ethnocentrism, and ignorance.

Peggy Li, Columnist


Illustration by Claire Revere. 

When Donald Trump first became a serious candidate for the presidency, many collectively exclaimed, “I’ll move to Canada,” with the smug, implicit assumption that Canada would even accept us. And when Americans visit a foreign country, for the most part they don’t bother learning much beyond a few key phrases like: “Where’s the bathroom?” Because, of course, everyone speaks English nowadays. Yet when they return from their brief excursion, they’d like to believe they’ve taken in the culture to such an extent as to judge it clearly by their own standards. Although its true that, as rational individuals, we have the right to judge whatever we’d like, too often the subsequent judgments are made from a place of misunderstanding, ethnocentrism and ignorance.

Around 65 percent of Americans do not own a passport, and thus have not ever set foot outside of the country. Only 18 percent of Americans report being able to speak a language besides English. Of course this is understandable given that not everyone can afford to travel, and often the quality of the American educational system isn’t consistent throughout the country. But what is at stake here is not just the ability to travel, but a sense of respect for other cultures of the world and the awareness that there are other things going on in the world that aren’t centered around the U.S. of A. I think we’ve all experienced the sense of what it means to be an “American” in some form or another. It’s often not positive. Be it on internet forums that decry irritating American tourists, or watching foreign films that feature the stereotypical white American dad with sunscreen on his nose, clunky white sneakers and a fanny pack.

China in particular, is a popular target for American criticism. You’ll see it on the news, on Facebook or in magazines: attacks on China for its censorship of free speech, for its pollution and for its mistreatment of animals. Just last week someone wrote about how the treatment of animals in China is just “wrong.” But have they seen modern American factory farms? Have they considered the fact that just 6 years ago, nearly 70 percent of Chinese people lived on less than 5 dollars a day? Not to say that animal rights are unimportant, but that they simply cannot be prioritized over starving people. There are bigger fish to fry. But it’s not just China that is scorned by the American ideology. Criticisms touch other countries too. Because how many times growing up have your parents said, “Some starving child in Africa could’ve eaten that” when you didn’t quite want to finish your food? When you think about it, and realize the implications, what are we left with?

That phrase reduces the entire continent of Africa, with its rich history and diverse peoples, to the uniform image of hungry souls waiting for our benevolent charity. It paints them as pathetic rather than being like any other country that struggles to take care of its citizens. Instead of putting our literal food scraps in a package bound for just “Africa,” why don’t we say, “14.5 percent of impoverished Americans could really use that food.” Where maybe some of the hard-working Americans, veterans or disabled down the street can finally get the break they deserve.

The fact is Americans, and America, are not better in any way that would allow us to judge other countries from higher moral ground. When you travel or research a country, maybe you do become aware of the shortcomings or areas that need improvement. But before you decry someone else, first consider the American history of slavery, imperialism or the fact that women only got the right to vote in 1920. I’m not trying to stop all discussion–of course it can be helpful and necessary. But rather than immediately denouncing a flaw, would it not be more productive to try and understand where it’s coming from? We often assume that the great U.S. is guilt and blame free, but in reality, every group of peoples has skeletons in their closet that only they can deal with over time. That pretentious Western neighbor who calls out others on everything doesn’t actually help anyone.