Tuesday, February 23, 2010

QUIRKY AND QRAZY: THE AMERICAN CHARACTER

During my many years of living abroad, I always found people curious to know what Americans are really like, what makes us run. Recently I gave it some thought and I concluded that we are more complicated than we know, that we are basically quirky and qrazy!

It’s the quirky, qrazy things that make Americans what we are proudest of being: American. For most Americans it is difficult to avoid the superlative when discussing our country and its attributes. We are brave, creative, compassionate, and silly. Sometimes we are all of those things at the same time. We are a mélange of offbeat colors, cultures, and creeds, but all of us believe in the law of the land that defines America: liberty and justice for all. That creed inspires awe in those who don’t have such freedoms.

We Americans want to be loved and admired. We are arguably among the most envied, the most imitated, and the most hated people in the world. We Americans are distinctive in our dress or undress, in our often-strident voices, in our love for the underdog, in our idiosyncrasies, and in our fierce independence.

We believe that with the honor and privilege of being the wealthiest and most technologically advanced democracy in the world there comes an obligation to fight for the same rights for everyone else on Planet Earth. We willingly send our first-born or only-born to distant lands to defend and help those less fortunate. Despite our generosity – to a fault some say – we are often castigated for our capabilities and extraordinary willingness to share. We reach out to the world through our government agencies, UN agencies, and private exchange groups, and are among the first to assist in relief efforts in any part of the world.

Americans have a zest for living. We treasure our traditional values of freedom of the press, of religion, of assembly, and of individual rights. We believe that to disagree with our leaders is as natural as taking the next breath. We believe in assembling peacefully – and sometimes not so peacefully - to air our grievances. America was forged in the revolution of 1776 when the colonists revolted against British colonial rule. That revolution continues to inspire. The freedoms demanded in 1776 are the same freedoms desired by millions of people who make desperate attempts to reach American shores.

Americans believe in the dignity of hard work and we know with an inborn certainty that with hard work anything can be achieved. Americans worship, or not, as our spirit dictates, but we demand the freedom to do either, and we defend everybody else’s right to do the same. Slavery and segregation are an ugly part of American history, but the nation rose from the horrors of that shameful past, and through laws and the goodwill of most Americans, established the goal of liberty and justice for every American.

Americans are an extremely generous and giving people. We are the people some love to hate; however, on a one-on-one basis, most nationalities love us. The success of the Peace Corps demonstrates that. Young and old, we Americans take our expertise abroad, and spend two years living in rustic conditions, endeavoring to uplift the lives of the poor by demonstrating what can be accomplished with meager resources. In return, the volunteers learn about other cultures, are sensitized to the poor, and discover that feet were indeed made for walking.

Americans want to live well and we obsess over how to live extremely well. A two-car garage is no longer to be wished for, but is mandatory. Americans are contradictory. Families love to eat out, yet we search for restaurants that feature “home cooking,” and, as at home, we want “all you can eat.” Americans have a love affair with their cars, and enjoy hitting the open road. There is a strange reluctance to get out of our cars until we get back home. For that reason there are drive-up banks, drive-up restaurants, drive-up telephones, drive-up laundry-dry cleaners, and someone is working on a gadget to enable Americans to pump gas without getting out of the car.

The bywords of the younger generations are wash and wear, carry out, and the all-time favorite, buy now-pay later. Instant gratification is the order of the day. Americans no longer carry money. We carry plastic credit cards that are used to pay for groceries, movies, fast foods, clothing, mortgages, in short, almost everything. Of course that means that a considerable number of Americans are deep in debt; however, we go on happily charging whatever our hearts desire and adding to our liabilities.

Americans visiting other countries are sometimes gregarious, loud, and obnoxious. This usually comes from feelings of inadequacy in not knowing the local language. It is only in the recent past that we have recognized the need to learn a foreign language. The attitude previously, odd though it may seem, was that everybody in the world should speak English. And as quiet as it is kept, English is not the official language of the United States. This news does not lessen our insistence that everyone coming to our shores should speak English.

Ah, yes, Americans are people of great humanity with a unique sense of justice and fair play. We are proud of living in a democratic country, and are patriotic to a fault. We are at our best in times of adversity. An outrage committed against one American is one committed against all Americans, and the country bonds in solidarity. We Americans are magnificent in our collective mourning and outrage. In times of great tragedy we wave the Stars and Stripes, the national symbol of unity, a rallying declaration that as long as that flag flies, Americans will not be defeated by whatever tragedy. We come together in anger and grief to demonstrate our support for the fallen, and to make a potent statement of our pride in being Americans.

When Americans, and others, were attacked and killed in places with strange sounding names – Beirut, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi – our compatriots shuddered, but felt certain that such death and devastation could never happen on American soil. September 11, 2001 shattered forever our notions of safety at home, and changed the welcoming character of Americans. We no longer welcome the world’s tired, poor and hungry because they might be terrorists.

When America sneezes, some countries catch a cold, or come down with other unpleasant maladies, and they feel it most in their bare money coffers. During the years of the Cold War, the United States and Russia competed against each other by pouring money and aid into countries they had interests in, in an attempt to win those nations over to their side. An African proverb says when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. And so it was when the two powers engaged in tugs of war over small countries. When the Cold War ended many of those countries learned to their great surprise that America, as other nations, has interests, not friends. It was then that the “grass” truly suffered.

Americans have some quirks that are more distinctive than others. Perhaps the French invented perfume, but Americans have the market on deodorants. While some cultures might prefer natural body odors to the use of deodorants, Americans have an anathema to body odors – our own and anybody else’s. We are personally offended if we get a whiff of anything from anybody that doesn’t have soap, spices or flowers in it. That might help to explain the other oddity to foreigners. Americans do not want people to stand too close. We value our personal space. When we talk to a foreign visitor, we stand several feet from the visitor. This causes the visitor to get closer. We inch backward and this weird dance continues until a wall is reached. At that point we Americans make a hasty exit.

When Americans say, “Time is money,” we mean it. We want to meet, greet, and get on with the business at hand. We do not mean to be rude; we just don’t want to waste time. In some cultures it is customary to meet, sip tea, and inquire about the person’s nephew’s cousin’s step-uncle, the weather, and current events on Mars. By the time the foreign person asks about the American’s fifth cousin’s step-niece, the American’s eyes have glazed over, and he might appear to be in a catatonic state.

Such are the ways of Americans, a people courageous, gentle, noble, warm, funny, generous, and above all, quirky – the ultimate word that can be used to adequately describe those of us who proudly call ourselves Americans.
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1 comment:

  1. This may well be the most honest synopsis of Americans I've ever read.

    I lived in Mexico for a semester in college, a humble affair in comparison to your own world travels, but it opened my eyes and helped me to see us not just from our perspective, but from THEIRS. And I've found that over the years, that experience has helped me often to relate better to those in other countries.

    But I have to say this: people in those countries might well say much of the same thing about THEMSELVES as what you portrayed here. I read in what you said much of what I saw in Mexico, and what I know of my friends in Australia, Canada, and the UK. Are there differences? Yes.

    But we all have the same thing in common: our humanity.

    And humanity doesn't change according to political borders. Rather, it becomes more tangible.

    So while I recognize Americans here, I more recognize ALL of humanity and rejoice in the fact that we can't be defined or limited by mere politics.

    (Um...on the particular point of "business only"..yeah...that's so thoroughly American it's embarrassing. Learned about that in Mexico and I KNOW that lesson has aided my many careers, as I tend to look to the person first, and business second. As it should be!)

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