Why I Love and Hate Being an American

Editor's note: This is a Flashback post from August of 2010.

As an American, in addition to being a Texan living abroad, it’s easy to be critical of my homeland, particularly when there are so many sympathetic ears.

In Japan, with the plethora of thin people around, I liked to complain about my countrymen being so fat, the kids more and more likely to develop diabetes. In Thailand, with the political unrest, it was ignorance: “The average American wouldn’t know Thailand from Afghanistan.” Naturally, I exaggerated to curry favor with non-American expats and locals alike, but I meant a lot of what I said.

When I’m outside the good ol’ US of A’s borders, all I can see are the faults.

When I’m repatriated, it’s like a drop of water rejoining the pond: I start out as something unique, something that doesn’t seem as though it should be returned to the mass ”¦ but with a few ripples of time, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the drips.

This is not as black and white as I’m painting it. There are times I do in fact like, even love that I was born American when I’m abroad. When I’m unable to access certain blogs in China, when I see “no foreigners allowed” signs in Japan, when I talk to some men and women born and raised under the teachings of Islam and realize they have absolutely no desire to kill me. But some issues really tear me apart, as an informed American and a world traveler.

Expression

US Constitution
US Constitution © kjd

The good:

Freedom of expression. The first amendment. The right for people to assemble, to protest, to do almost anything but yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It’s the cornerstone of everything that happens in this country. Millions of people disagree with hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but I’m willing to bet a majority of those opposed still support their right to express what they want.

The bad:

Bigots and complete idiots have a voice too. In fact, they’re the ones people usually listen to. I disagree with a lot of Bill Maher’s tactics, but he basically has it right saying Rush Limbaugh “scares white men as they get into their truck at lunchtime.” And he reaches more people with scare tactics than Maher does with comedy.

Someone with the best intentions can stir up feelings of mistrust, even hate, with the wrong facts, or the omission of truth. My biggest qualm with American life: every piece of media is screaming at us, telling us the least important things in the world are the most important ”¦

Protesting, people dying in Thailand? Who cares? Tom Cruise is a “crazy” Scientologist!

There’s no money left for social security programs? Sorry, didn’t hear you ”¦ reading this story about finding the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast.

It’s like the entire American media is the voice of HAL 9000 – quietly assuring us everything is ok, everything will always be fine, or distracting us with the latest bit of mindless Hollywood gossip – while in the background systems are exploding.

Food

KFC Double Down
KFC Double Down © djjewelz

The good:

There are hungry, even starving people in the states, but by and large, food is cheap and easy to come by. With such diversity, authentic ethnic restaurants are available in even the smallest US cities. I challenge you to find another place with such a variety of food.

The bad:

Our eating habits are downright disgusting. Even those who are a little more conscientious than others are still inhaling foods our neighbors around the world might gag on. Aren’t we the country that turned hyper obesity into a recognized disability (may have been Canada, but I think we provided the snacks)?

Who knows how many products are filled with high fructose corn syrup? One of the most recognized words around the globe is “Coca Cola.” More and more kids are getting diabetes through exposure to products with just too much sugar.

The worst of the worst?

  • KFC’s Double Down, a “sandwich” for those seeking to reduce carbs in their diet ”¦ yeah, right. Bacon and cheese smashed between two pieces of fried chicken and labeled as something innovative.
  • Fried butter ”¦ need I say more? Ok, fried Snickers, fried ice cream, chicken fried steak ”¦ yummy.
  • Competitive eaters. People who have actually turned ingesting too much into a sport. A 20-pound hamburger? Not a problem. Eat a 72-ounce steak in under an hour? Pass the knife.

People

Diverse crowd at healthcare rally
Diverse crowd at healthcare rally © Grant Neufeld

The good:

America has incredible diversity. I would venture to say it is one of the most racially diverse countries on Earth. With that diversity comes a variety of perspectives, voices in the government, influence on every aspect of life from reading literature to educating your kids on where their friends come from.

The bad:

I honestly don’t know where this idea of immigrants being enemies came from, but it seems to be deeply engrained in many Americans. There’s a sense that Caucasian is a somewhat “neutral race” and anything that deviates from that is abnormal.

Just look at the new law passed in Arizona: authorities can now demand people they suspect of being illegal immigrants present their papers. Citizens are being judged literally at face value, and it’s hard to see an end in sight.

Power

The good:

America is (or maybe just was) a shining example to the rest of the world, a pillar of democracy, freedom, a better way of life. People want to live here, are willing to leave everything they’ve ever known for a shot at the American dream.

The bad:

The dream may still be floating through the heads of many beyond our borders, but we’re not exactly setting the best example. Starting a war no one in the world agrees with. Using far too many natural resources so our citizens may enjoy privileged lifestyles ”¦ actually, no, it’s just wasteful. Letting our trust fund kids out into the world to be the faces that many foreigners associate with Americans.

We’re aware of the influence we have, and I think we wield an iron fist when it comes down to it; if so many countries are opposed to our presence in Iraq, why don’t they just stop us? Because they’re afraid. Afraid of how their actions will affect relations with America, the most powerful nation on Earth, and afraid of doing anything like sending their forces against ours.

There are times abroad when someone will tap me on the shoulder and question me nonstop about life in the states, and I can’t do anything but smile and say “yeah, it’s pretty sweet.” On the other hand, more often than not, I’m tempted to sew a Canadian flag on my backpack and inch away from the heated political discussion in the hostel.

Proud to be an American? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

30 Responses

  1. Liv

    Turner, that was AMAZING. As a first-generation American, and then as a serial expat, I’m a very uneasy American. I grew up listening to my parents criticize the country and the people (Americans are fat; Americans are stupid; Americans wouldn’t know the difference between Italy and Argentina). That always confused me – did they mean me, too? I was American, after all. And then, because I grew up in the South, my classmates were very much: “USA! USA! USA!” I didn’t care for that, either. Then, when I moved abroad – first to Japan, then to Ireland, and now in Italy – I became accustomed to having to defend my country, even as its issues became so much plainer to me. I love my country – how can I not? It’s my home. It makes me “me.” You summed up the good and the bad so elegantly and succinctly. Absolutely brilliant work.

    Reply
  2. Amanda

    I agree with a lot of this…I too feel the internal conflict of being an American abroad.
    What makes me me the most upset about Americanism is how we treat each other, especially from a healthcare standpoint. The fact that my friend will only get 6 weeks maternity leave to spend with her newborn CHILD seems outright appalling. We work ourselves into the ground with little or no vacation and yet, we aren’t getting ahead; we’re falling behind. I love the foundation and principles of what it is to BE an American, to enjoy the freedom endowed to us at birth, but sadly these ideals seem antiquated.

    Reply
  3. Garrett

    Ah, I wouldn’t be overly critical. Don’t worry, one day (soon) we’ll no longer be the economic leader, where so much of our directed anguish comes from.

    And I agree I wish we were a country of 5k runners all in fantastic shape and sipping carefully picked wines during our organic meals.

    There are a lot of reasons ex-pats never want to return home, but I think the benefits of being an American – amazing political stability, the ability to speak and do (almost) whatever you want plus amazing infrastucture to name a few – aren’t why they stay away.

    After traveling to 41 countries. I am amazed at what we have even compared to other “like” countries, as those in western Europe.

    And I’m thankful for that.

    Reply
  4. Reannon

    I love America (and the values the country was founded on) but I don’t love Americans (well a lot of them anyway). I think there’s a difference. I love the Bill of Rights and I love the geographical and cultural diversity here but after living abroad for a while, I just can’t relate to the culture much.

    That said though…I think Americans have the potential to change. It’s a sick society and will probably have to get worse before it can get better, but I’m optimistic that it will eventually. We’re still such a young country! It’ll take time.

    One positive about American culture (and my favorite part) is the creativity. I think American culture’s emphasis on individuality and freedom of expression is what accounts for the fact that America has produced a high percentage of artists and innovators over the years. So there’s that to be proud of at least.

    Reply
  5. Reannon

    By the way, what in the world is fried butter and where can you find fried Snickers? How do you fry butter anyway?

    Reply
  6. Turner

    Reannon,

    Apparently, they designed a special coating so that the butter could be fried with it melting… that’s right, there are people looking into the science of this, just for food. They’re at carnivals.

    Reply
  7. Seedy3

    Brilliant article, Turner! Everything was spot on. Another thing I appreciate about the States is that there is no stigma about returning to school after age 30. I have spent a lot of time overseas and people not living in the States are not used to it. I have found lots of adverts for jobs outside of the States that have age limits. That is weird and annoying to me.

    The bad? There are a ton, of course. The weak education system, the non-existent healthcare structure, the really stupid people. There is a reason why the universities are getting clogged with foreigners.

    Reply
  8. RenegadePilgrim

    Nice article. I’m just coming to a close on a RTW trip and I think the important thing to remember about being an American traveling abroad is to know your history and know the history of the places you are going. I think the biggest problem with Americans is we don’t know our history, so we can’t really defend ourselves when people from other countries seem to know more about us than we do.

    For instance, I met a Canadian fellow who was going off on me about how bad Americans have been to the Blacks and the Indians. Um, hello? Canada, you are still treating your indigenous people like crap. MOST of the countries in the world have sins that their people have to carry with them. These friendly reminders usually get people to be nice when they know you know what you are talking about.

    It’s all about how we carry ourselves and make sure we are doing a good job of representing our country. People will remember their experience with YOU more than they will reading about America in the paper or watching it on the news, which is how most people learn about America. So, I just try and be a good ambassador and not talk politics if it can be helped! :)

    Reply
  9. dude

    The really sad thing about americans is that so many of them are so politically disconnected that they don’t even realize that they are ignorant bigots spreading hatred using fear. I’m not talking about your fatfobia, but your political correctness, dishonesty and avocation of violence (you’re a leftist, therefore you advocate using violence against poor people to impoverish them further.)

    A prime example of this is you, Turner Wright. You’re so wrapped up in your party ideology that you can’t even think straight.

    One of the reasons I travel, is to get away from the hateful, violent tendencies of people like yourself.

    Reply
  10. Turner

    Ummm… I’d say that statement has absolutely no backing whatever, and you kind of lose credibility with:

    “…avocation of violence (you’re a leftist, therefore you advocate using violence against poor people to impoverish them further.)”

    Therefore? I don’t advocate violence. It is true I lean to the left, not because I always agree with liberal thinking, but because they’re not nearly as hypocritical.

    I still don’t see where you’re getting this idea that I’m violent; I lived on a Buddhist monastery until recently, and, with the exception of jr. high, have never gotten into a physical fight. I’d be happy to go a few rounds in the comments, if you think that will help prove your point.

    Reply
    • Aubri

      This confused me as well. Leftist = Violent? What? I don’t even know a right winger who would make that connection. I am most definitely left leaning, but I don’t have a violent bone in my body, or wish in my mind. I couldn’t even kill a bug to feed my carnivorous plant. And hell, I AM the poor. I will likely always be poor and frankly I’m okay with that. I consider myself a liberal because I care most about the environment, social justice, separation of church and state, and stomping out corporate corruption. I thought it was common knowledge “the left” is generally the peace-promoting party, not to mention the one working to eliminate suffering for the poor. So what is this about violence against the poor? This must be what you meant by Rush Limbaugh’s scare tactics.

      I have been living in France for a year, it is something else watching the carnage from afar – a relief in some ways, but frustrating as well. It’s true that you learn a lot about your own culture only after leaving it behind. It’s an eye-opening experience I find difficult to put into words, so I appreciate your article. It is something the majority of Americans will never understand, for most don’t even have the desire to leave their own state.

      Reply
  11. RenegadePilgrim

    @dude I would argue that most of the people who are ” so politically disconnected that they don’t even realize that they are ignorant bigots spreading hatred using fear” DO NOT TRAVEL. Most of the Americans I run into overseas are pretty open to learning about different cultures and immersing themselves in their travel experiences. Yes, there are the people who only stay in American hotels and eat at every McDonald’s they can find, but for the most part, I have not experienced the bigots you speak of when traveling. They usually stay home out of FEAR!

    Reply
  12. Diana Nguyen

    Hey Turner, Great article. But man, deep fried Snickers/Twinkies/whatever is a Summer Must Do and I will protect that right! :) (I will, however, agree with you on the butter thing. Ew.) And competitive eating isn’t limited to Americans (hello, Kobayashi!!).

    My issues (when it comes to food) is how picky some of my fellow Americans are. There are some people that have no interest in anything that isn’t a burger or pizza. That’s just sad. :(

    In any case, great article. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Reply
  13. Debbie B

    There is much to be proud of as an American. Yes there is much that could be improved but which country out there is perfect? I’ll take overeating over stoning women or making women wear burkas or even killing people for protesting. I found the article interesting but wish people would stop apologizing for being an American.

    Legal immigrants are not the enemy. There isn’t anyone out there that can not say illegal immigration is a huge problem in the border states! Did you know that legal immigrants are required to have their “papers” on them at all times in the US (not just Arizona) and I bet I would have to do the same if I was in Germany, Thailand or Mexico.

    It is too easy to criticize the US. But lets think about the amount of natural resources India and China are using. And how are their people treated? Other nations may decide it is in their best interest to not stand against the US because who will be there to help defend them when they are invaded? Or maybe it is because they needed the oil they were getting from the middle east more!

    Reply
    • Tunzzina

      Really?
      Forcing women to wear burka’s
      wanna know one thing I absolutely hate about America. The fact that immigrants have to stick together because white folks like yourself can’t accept different people. From white police officers shooting black people and suspecting people to not giving a damn about how Indians work so hard
      I was in New York the other day and I encountered a experiment where a Arabic guy slapped a white girl to see who would defend her and guess what? everyone came and threw the man on the ground. Now here comes the girl once again with a hijab and a burka on and the man slaps her repeatedly and guess what? not one single person. no one turns their head, they are so engulfed in their cellphones and conversations to notice a women getting violated and hurt. It’s sickening to know that Muslim’s have absolutely zero support. Don’t say that I can’t use one person to group the whole race because that’s exactly what you’re people did to everyone else. If you’re black, you are violent and ready to kill people, if you are Mexican, you are ready to steal and lie, and oh here’s the classic
      if you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist, ready to blow the building behind you or shoot the man with the child.
      I have lost faith in Americans. I can never call myself an American proudly.
      I am ashamed of it..

      Reply
  14. Alex

    I traveled across America for 3 months last year, it was one of the best experiences on my life and it really opened my eyes as to what life in another country is like. I had only ever been to Florida with my family before and it was always a very enclosed experience! I wanted to see the “real” America and I sure did. It is a place of huge variety, massive skyscrapers and guys in cardboard boxes for shoes standing outside begging for money. I guess you guys really take freedom to a whole new level!

    Reply
  15. turkish guy

    Very Nice article, nice to read. Thanks.
    And I especially liked food subject.
    I have been to the usa for a while. Each country and its people has good and bad sides.
    I can say people are very polite and good (I was in the north), I liked. But, they are not good at moral values.
    And the food issue was terrific. As a turkish, I can say I havent eat “food” in the usa for 3 months there. I think american people in needs of foreign cuisines. Thats why there are a lot of restaurants such as thai, chinese etc.
    And america is extremely capitalist and this hurts its own citizens. I dont think, there is an american dream any more. A job lose for several weeks may make anyone homeless.

    Reply
  16. Jake

    While you do state real problems, these are not in anyway unique to the United States. Most European countries are just as bigoted as the United States. Xenophobia, and especially Islamophobia. Take France for instance, they banned the right of people to wear traditional muslim dress such as headscarves. And the fact that Rush Limbaugh has the ability and right to espouse his ideas however ridiculous they might be is not a bad thing about America, but a great thing. In most places, such a person as opposed to the current administration would be imprisoned or silenced in many other countries. In regards to the wars that “war no one in the world agrees with,” it is not the government’s job to do what the rest of the
    world agrees with, but to do what is in the interest of the country and its people. That does not mean it should violate human rights which I would say the US has not done, but that also does not mean war should be completely avoided. On a final note, why would not other countries try and stop the US via armed invasion? Are you suggesting that they should? The very fact that you were able to, and had the right to write this article critical of the US is a testament to the greatness of our country.

    Reply
  17. PI

    It’s not Islamophobia will they are planning or trying to kill you. France did a good thing in banning traditional muslim dress. I hope it catches on in the US as well.

    I hate multiculturalism.

    Nothing wrong with Arizona’s immigration law.

    Islam is a serious threat to western countries.

    Reply
  18. david

    I love my country and am proud to be born American, however there are also things about this country that I do not like, but like someone said above, what country is perfect?

    I’m not overweight like the majority of the populace because I educate myself to eat smart. Sure, times are tough, money is scarce, but with access to the internet like over 95% of Americans have, I can change my lifestyle, exercise, and dieting habits with a few keystrokes and some reading. Anyone on here that is overweight, start doing the right thing and work that fat off! Obesity is a very nasty epidemic in our country and you do not want to add yourself to that percentage!

    I am only 20 and have yet to REALLY get out there and see the world; being a Michigander, I’ve only seen a bit of the Midwest and some of Canada, but someday I hope to expand my horizons overseas and get everybodys’ opinions.

    I love the economic freedom that this country has, where you can start with nothing and work your way to the top with some dedication, motivation, innovative thinking, and creativity. HOWEVER. I absolutely cannot stand the fortune 500 companies spending millions on political lobbyists to turn government in any direction they please. There is plenty of political corruption in this country that they don’t teach you about in the public school system. You see it here first as the world’s richest corporations are housed in America, but soon when they expand operations further overseas, the true evil of capitalism will show its face.

    The American Dream, in my opinion, is a goal that you’d have to be dumb to pursue in today’s economy. Not only are corporations and government trying to squeeze every nickel and dime that we have out of us, we don’t have the education base to compete in today’s global economy, which would keep access to those middle-class jobs to flourish in. They’re all going overseas.

    Not to say that this is a terrible country, however. As time goes on, the super rich and powerful will find ways to bend and flex the constitution to their advantage against the people, but those bugs can and will be worked out ultimately, as the people are still in silent control of this country. Voting is kind of a joke, as both parties are corrupt and you either get to choose this one or that one, but I’d imagine someday down the road in the future, Americans will get fed up with listening to bogus career politicians and will make the change, regardless of how dumbed down society becomes.

    I do love our infrastructure, availability of goods, and the free speech which allowed me to rant a little about the dark side of this country. On the outside, we may be seen evil fighting two wars which seem to be going nowhere, many may find us barbaric to our own beliefs, but it’s all a key towards preserving & defending this wonderful country that we live in. You just don’t get it unless you’ve been here and seen things first hand.

    When you can go to a local mall and see people of ALL ethnic and religious backgrounds walking around without fear of getting shot or stabbed, that’s when you know you live somewhere special. Even if we have this strange Islamiphobia from 9/11 and anti-West sentiment, it’s still nice to see fully dressed Muslims expressing their beliefs, just as I can express mine. And the lack of fear comes boiling down to the fact that they’re just as American as me. One big melting pot of diversity.

    Maybe we’ll rise once more to economic dominance and be a leading influence on the world. Maybe not, which would be good so we can scale down our military. Regardless, I still love my country and am proud to be an American. <3

    Reply
  19. Jeremy

    I agree with most of this article, but I think you are sort of going a little over the top with some of the bad stuff you listed. There’s truth to most of it, but it just seems like you’re using a wide brush to paint the picture.

    Obesity: sure, it’s a huge problem, but not everyone in America is fat. Also, as you said, it’s not just America that has a problem with it. Also, how many other countries have a lot of people who can choose to go vegetarian/vegan and still be healthy? That’s a benefit of the plenty. Oh, and like I saw you mention in the comments, most fried novelty food like fried sweets and stuff besides meat can pretty much only be found at carnivals and the like in America. I could find fried Snickers in half the fish and chips shops in New Zealand. I tried one that a German friend got and didn’t like it, but he loved it. The Iraq conflict: if “no one in the world agrees with” it, why do we have allies sending troops and maintaining a presence there too? Immigration: I’ve never gotten the sense that white is “default” and everything else is abnormal. I live in Arkansas, supposedly, Hick Town, USA, and we don’t have people complaining about the huge growth of hispanic immigrants around here. People do complain about ILLEGAL immigrants sometimes, and that’s a whole other issue. Whatever your views on it, you have to admit it’s about a whole lot more than just “hey, those funny-looking people are moving in next door and I don’t like it.” The media: sure, a ton of popular culture is focused way to much on celebrity and the like, but there are plenty of people who know and care about serious issues from around the world. The vast majority of people I know could not care less about the latest scandal or whatever. Once again, the fact that people are able to waste time on celebrity “news” is a benefit of our prosperity.

    And the thing is, people can’t care about every issue. I’ve talked with people who scoff and look down their noses at others who don’t know about, for example, protests in Thailand or the latest revolt in the Middle East or the most recent budget worry, all the serious matters, but not knowing about one thing doesn’t mean they don’t care about it or other equally important things.

    I know I just sort of went off, but I’m just tired of people being down on America as a whole because of things like what you listed. America is pretty huge. Any viewpoint you find will probably have more people on both sides of it than the population of many other countries. Saying that the entire county is bad or needs to change because of one thing is ridiculous. People are not all the same, a point you made a couple times in your article, which is why people saying “this is what’s wrong with this entire country of more than 400,000,000 people” bugs me.

    Reply
  20. Diana

    You showed a picture that “supposedly” represented this great Diversity in America — AND NOT ONE Black person was in the crowd. I swear, white (oops I meant Caucasion) people do give themselves, and this country, far too much credit when it comes to racial diversity and equality.

    Reply
  21. Roxy

    You wrote more negative things about being an american than any of the positive. I have traveled to many different countries as an expat and have realized how much I really love America, A country in which a poor man can make himself rich. A land in which freedom and prosperity are available to anyone in search of it. I love you America, for what you stand and for all the opportunities that you have given me. God bless America. :)

    Reply
  22. Aimee Webber

    I ansolutely love your writing- both what you said and the way yous said it. I plan to read this with my Junior English class as a prep for their writing assignment on “What is an American?” I used to read Steinbeck’ “Paradox and Dream”, but it was always over their heads. This year I am pulling together a variety of short essays and commentaries. You made the cut.

    Thanks for such an honest and humorous look at what makes our nation tick (or not).

    Reply
  23. steven

    You remind me of the Americans I’d meet in hostels in Europe who would bash America endlessly. Your take on the Az law is flawed, as is your idea that in America, it is the predominant view that anything but white is abnormal. Sorry, but I’ve traveled around the world on a dime extensively, and there is only one conclusion that I can make, we aren’t any different than anyone else. No better and no worse. Everyone just wants their kids to grow up safe and live a long life.

    Reply
  24. Sue

    Third culture kid here, I would say that you were as we’ll. Explains a lot.

    Reply
  25. Akasha

    The discrimination that no one ever talks about, but that is prevalent, is that against white (ie. of Anglo-Saxon descent) U.S. American women who travel out of the country. Sorry, but we aren’t all monolingual, rich, easy partiers who just want to frolic on the beaches and exploit the local residents. I resent being targeted just because I’m of Anglo-Saxon descent and just because I’m female. But it happens every single friggin’ day because of prevalent stereotypes. And I grew up dirt poor in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere U.S. with a father who had to hunt deer in order for us to have something to eat. Privileged my ass. But I have to pay for that erroneous stereotype everywhere I go in the world.

    Reply
  26. Silk

    Hi, as a non-American I just want to say that many Americans are lovely people but there are certain common behaviours that have a negative impact and most of these are rooted in an educational system that seemingly promotes ignorance of the world and excessive nationalism. I will give you an example…. so many Americans actually believe that they are the only “free” country… I have been told repeatedly that I do not have freedom of speech and that my country is controlled by the Queen…. what this tells me is that either American schools are teaching a lot of erroneous information or perhaps NO INFORMATION AT ALL about the rest of the world. This is just one of many examples but I hope you can appreciate that misinformation like this and the resulting comments which can be very insulting and completely inaccurate as well does not promote good relations.

    Erroneous information about the world wars doesn’t help either as I have seen a LOT of degrading comments from Americans on memorial YouTube pages where they are belittling the other allies who fought whilst seemingly having no idea that the U.S. sat out
    both wars until they were forced (by circumstance) to join the fight. Again, I ask myself if American schools ever cover that point or that they sold supplies to both sides for some time? I wish I was a fly on the wall to know what is being taught to Americans to cause such widespread ignorance.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Let\'s Make Sure You\'re Human ... * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.