I'm Ok, You're OK... but are "We" OK? Part 2

I've spent about 20% of my life outside of the US. During my second time studying abroad I experienced anti-American demonstrations thrown in my face. It was a cold and snowy January, and it seemed both the sentiments and the weather would never change. 

Maybe I was naive (I was only 20), but I was shocked at the passion with which Europeans showed their hatred toward the US! I thought we were allies, since I living was in a NATO member country.

I arrived in Europe for a year's study the day after Iraq sent it's troops into Kuwait. "KRIG?" covered the newspapers that week in July 1990, but I didn't experience open anti-US hostility until the US attacked Iraq the following January.   Protesters weren't just demonstrating in European capitals, but in the tiny village where I was one of two American students. I heard daily criticism by the other students, radical or not, and I was shocked by the images of anti-Americanism that flooded the papers and TV. It wasn't just in the mid-East that people were burning our flag! Throughout the world, America as a country and a concept was criticized for attacking Iraq. Students would say to me "Bush says it's about spreading democracy, but everyone knows it's about oil and religion..." When they'd ask my opinion, I felt very conflicted. I didn't like what my government was doing, but I loved my country! I spent so much time debating American politics (and explaining a foreign policy that I disagreed with) that I stopped speaking English when we were in a pub or disco. It was asking for too much attention and I was only looking for a quiet beer with friends.

About 11 years later, the cycle returned. Again I was living abroad. This time in a city of 115,000 people which is the capital of the country's oil industry. The city was worldly and pro-US ("they know where their bread is buttered" I used to say). Yet after months of pro-US sympathy in the wake of 9/11, sentiments changed overnight when we attacked Iraq again. It was now familiar territory: I defended my country, but despised its foreign policy. Even today much of the world sees the US as a de-facto occupier of Iraq. Many people believe that getting rid of Saddam Hussein doesn't make us great liberators, but rather chaos-builders.

Shortly after 9/11 I received an e-mail from the US Embassy telling citizens who live abroad that for our own safety we should not flaunt being American. "Don't wear sweatshirts with college logos and don't speak English audibly in the streets." I hadn't spoken English in a bar in years  because drunk people stupidly spew all sorts of incorrect crap about the US. It doesn't matter where you live on the planet, there is one thing that is equal for all: you can't talk logic with the drunk. Political or not and the Iraq war was a hot topic.

Every single day you can read something anti-American in most European papers. It's almost comical how people who never lived in the US or even set foot in our country have such strong, negative opinions on all things American. It can get very tiresome to spend years correcting people even if I sometimes partially agreed with them. My German friend Stefanie once told me she thinks the entire world should be able to vote in US Presidential elections simply because what happens in Washington effects the entire world. Although I wouldn't go that far, she has a point.

But one thing I stand by. No matter WHAT the government is doing. No matter what weird thing happens in some village in Utah by some crazy fundamentalist with seventeen wives or what new crazy law someone has dug up in a sensationalist paper, or what shooting episode is still in the news I still go back to Europe each year. And sometimes I still have to explain something misunderstood. Yet I still think critically about what is being said.

People in Europe consider America to be a very violent society - how many episodes of shootings in high schools, banks, hospitals and on the street do we have here? Even some parents don't think Bridgewater is safe. I was criticized for letting my 5th grader walk down the street by herself. Many Europeans assume all Americans carry weapons because people support the right to bear arms (not to mention what they see on fictional TV series). Lots of Europeans LOVE American TV but HATE Americans because of what they see on it. Who can blame them for worrying? I opened one (online) paper just to test my theory of daily negative US news. The first story I found about the US (that wasn't a reaction to the events in Cairo) was of a 38-year old man shooting a bunch of people in Detroit*, before shooting himself. Violence and hate from our country is always available in their daily papers.

It's hard to be an outsider. It's hard that people know I'm from a place that people love to hate. Not just in strange countries that we can't find on a map or spell, but our allies in Western Europe. Ask any German or Belgian, Italian or even a Brit what they really think about our country. You might not like what you hear. It makes it hard to represent our nation. For even though I'm no diplomat, every time I leave our country, I am representing you. Just as I may always think that all Italian guys are skirt-chasers based on one bad experience. When in a wedding in Japan a few years ago, I felt very tall and fat, and very, very foreign. So I hope I didn't drink too much, I ate my chop sticks without offending the locals and my manners were impeccable because people were watching me.

But there is another side to this story. Lots of people I know in Europe, and in Asia, and in South America love the US both in concept and in practice. One of my friends says that while she prefers to live in her home country, the US is the best place to vacation on the planet. How many high schools and universities are flooded with foreign students who want to learn from our teacher or professors and be in classes with our students? Look at the companies in our area - with employees from every continent, including Antarctic penguins disguised as scientists, we do offer competitive job opportunities. I'll never forget one night in Spring of 1991. I had been crying after some drunk bully was yelling at me about the Iraq war at 2am in a night club. A guy asked me to dance. While we danced, he told me, "Lots of people here are criticizing your country. They have short memories! I know that our country today is built on your country's generosity." He was, of course, speaking of the Marshall funding that rebuilt postwar Europe. I couldn't tell you what the guy's name was, or what he looked like. But I'll never forget the conversation.

My point here is that sometimes it's good to look in a mirror to see what others see in you. It's hard to be the outsider. It's uncomfortable to know that most of the people around you don't agree with what your country is doing. It's alienating. But at the same time it is enriching too. I learned a lot about myself. And who knew these feelings from a frozen January, 20 years ago would come back to me as I think of our issues today. I guess the images from "a strategic ally's" violent streets (Egypt) together with the cold air have brought back images long buried under piles of papers on "my kitchen counter."

I get it....

*NB This was written a few days ago, and posted 2/3/2011, I couldn't find the link when I went to publish this post today. The story regarded a shooting at a police station in Detroit.


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