Lessons I Learned About the US While Living Abroad
When packing my bags a year ago to head across the pond and live in Germany, I anticipated leaving the US behind to fill my brain with all kinds of European cultural experiences and societal norms. I wanted so badly to shed my American skin and embrace a German Lebensstil. Little did I know that my reputation, as an American, would proceed me. That skin wasn't coming off. On a weekly, and sometimes even daily basis, I was confronted with stereotypes about Americans I didn't even know existed.
It was then I realized maybe that shouldn't be normal. Maybe that shouldn't make sense.
Germans, known for their directness, often cut to the chase in their line of questioning. I frequently found myself in the hot seat as questions about politics, culture and current events came flying at me like dodgeballs. Tactfully, I tried to respond and even defend my homeland, yet sometimes making sense of your own country is hard. In navigating the intricacies of the USA, I came to three realizations that define us as a nation.
The 3 C's of American Culture
While not my intention, some may find my realizations to paint my country in a bad light. My hope is to shine some light on the aspects of daily life that many may find "normal" yet are seen as vastly different in other parts of the world. I am neither here to discern nor judge a right or wrong way of living (I'm too young for that), but am merely offering different perspectives. Hopefully, through those perspectives, I open your world a little bit. In that vein, a country brimming with confidence and exceptionalism may also be due for a little criticism.
Americans live in a capitalistic society. I know, a profound nugget of information; however, what differentiates capitalism in Western Europe from the USA is the degree in which it influences other aspects of life outside of the economic sphere - in other words - how deep it runs in our veins. And in the US, it runs DEEP.
Deeply imbedded in the American psyche is the rags-to-riches mentality, a dream that is rapidly losing footing in days of rising wealth inequality and structural barriers to success.
I remember telling my German host mom a story about a friend of mine. After suffering an injury (not fatal, but enough to warrant to trip to the ER), she told her friends to call her an Uber because of how much an ambulance ride would cost. She ended being fine, but at the time, I found the story to be mostly normal. I mean, it made sense to me - save the money if you can. Come to find out, it happens pretty frequently. My host mom, on the other hand, looked disturbed. She responded, "You mean to tell me that she paid a stranger to take her to the hospital, while injured, instead of medical health professionals?" It was then I realized maybe that shouldn't be normal. Maybe that shouldn't make sense.
Hyper-capitalism has encouraged an environment where outsourcing ambulance rides to ride sharing services, like Uber and Lyft, is happening. Who wouldn't take a Lyft to the hospital when just four miles in an ambulance could cost you more than $3,000? The very high levels of capitalism have also inspired the famous "American Dream", the idea that a better life is just on the other side of hard work and determination. Deeply imbedded in the American psyche is the rags-to-riches mentality, a dream that is rapidly losing footing in days of rising wealth inequality and structural barriers to success. Expansive privatization has universities and hospitals running more like businesses than public services. This stands in contrast to many European countries where higher taxes have secured collective goods like universal healthcare and tuition-free higher education.
One of my favorite tasks while living in Germany was going to the bakery on a Sunday morning to grab the fresh rolls for breakfast. My host family never understood why this mundane task was so fulfilling to me. For me, it was the mixture of a morning walk, light conversation at the counter with the baker and the smell of fresh bread wafting down the sidewalk that made it all worthwhile.
Was it convenient? By American standards, probably not. "Why work harder, when you could work smarter?" goes the saying that encapsulates the American obsession with convenience. The bakeries that fill every street corner in Europe are a dime a dozen here. Of course, you can find a bakery in the US, but that often entails a longer car ride and prices well above what you'd find at the supermarket. On top of that, the bread is goes stale after a day. That's why a preservative-filled sliced loaf of bread is easily found in most American households. Sure, that fresh bakery roll may taste better and be more nutritious, but that means I have to get in my car and drive all the way to the bakery and buy it the day of. Why not just go with the sliced bread I bought last week? - It's gotta still be good.
Convenience bleeds deeper further than just bread. We are, after all, the home of the free and land of fast food, which admittedly has metastasized to Europe, too. But it also influences how we drive, how we shop, how we communicate, how we travel, how we measure and many other facets of life.
Germany received a large dose of humility after losing two world wars and orchestrating one of the world's most effective genocides. That kind of destruction and violence lead to a shame most Germans still carry, in some shape or another, today. While a special case, the German example illustrates the premise that patriotism isn't as fervent in every country as it is in the States.
There is no better example than the pledge of allegiance; a ritualistic mantra every American student followed as part of their morning routine in school. Ask a European how their pledge of allegiance goes and you'll be met with confusion. Search for national flags on shirts or hanging outside of houses and you'll be disappointed. A history of economic success, military dominance and cultural popularity has led to a sense among many Americans that we do in fact live in the best country in the world.
Whether that is true or not is up to you to decide; however, the prevalence of chauvinism has lured many into believing that the American way is the right way. And the only way. I remember of friend of mine asking me, "Why do Americans think that their form of democracy is the best?" After a 35-day government shutdown in early 2019, rising racial unrest, increasing political polarization and an out-of-control pandemic, I ask myself the same question.