I Learned the Most About America Once I Left It
Unconvinced of American exceptionalism, fully convinced of American optimism.
For reasons I have yet to find an explanation to, I have always longed to live outside the country I grew up in. While I am currently in America, that remains true. But, I have also been lucky enough to spend significant time, both studying and working, in England, Spain, and Greece. My time abroad not only taught me more about who I was, but it taught me about how people see me, as an American.
It has always struck me that I never declared myself as “an American” until I had left the country. I still remember the first time, sitting in an English pub, when I was asked where I was from. The person on the receiving end clearly knew I was American and was probably expecting a state name in return. But I gave the answer I had always given, at least when I was in the U.S. — that I am Italian and Greek.
I grew up my whole life identifying this way. My mom immigrated here when she was 11 years old so I grew up in a household filled with Italian language and traditions. My dad’s mom was a Greek immigrant so similarly, we always celebrated Greek holidays and prepared heaps of Greek meals. For me, that was enough to identify myself in this way.
So I was shocked, and my ego a little bruised, when the response I received was “you’re not Italian or Greek.” But, after a little back and forth I realized that only in the U.S. do we regularly identify so heavily with cultures and nationalities outside the one we are actually living in.
The United States is funny in that way. For a place that boasts patriotism, pride, and power, you would think it is backed by a strong identifying cultural narrative. But there is no one story of ‘an American,’ making a confusing, but beautiful, narrative in and of itself.
So from then on, when asked by someone outside the U.S. where I was from, I answered the United States.
After learning how to correctly identify myself with people, I often found myself engaged in conversations about how life differed from Europe and the United States. What always struck me was just how many more questions I had for them, than they had for me.
That is perhaps the most revealing insight I gained about my home country. Americans, mostly through no fault of our own, have grown up in a bubble. We weren’t explicitly taught that we are the center of the universe, but by failing to acknowledge the rest of the globe, the ordinary person has almost no idea of how our actions ricochet across the map.
In elementary school, there was always a globe in the classroom. I vividly remember climbing on chairs in order to be eye level with the great, classroom sized, world. I’m not sure when exactly the globes and the maps left the classroom but their absence, left immense gaps in my learning opportunities and a false sense of global separateness. I learned global history first, in minute detail, as an opening act to American history. This system serves well for nationalistic purposes, but it fails to bring awareness of just how interconnected we are.
I remember feeling embarrassed, but curious nonetheless, asking basic questions about the Spanish system of government or English elections to be met with much deeper questions about a specific congressional bill or our role in on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
It became apparent just how little regard we show for other countries fueled by lack of an education, when their lives are shaped by us. There I was, a college student interested in global affairs, and I could not even give half the information about any given country, that any of the people I would run into could give me about my own.
It was also not lost on me that they learned about our government because we mattered. It seemed they were acutely aware, and often in awe, of American influence, knowing they needed to be in tune to it in a way that was not reciprocated.
In our bubble, American exceptionalism has been able to flourish and seep through other parts of the globe. American exceptionalism being the idea that America is inherently exceptional. It is unique in its way to overcome hardships, cure global conflict, allow for class mobility, mold billionaires, and forge cutting edge technology and industrial development. Its byproduct is an immense sense of pride, optimism, and prominent status and influence.
Paradoxically, while I was witnessing the effects of American exceptionalism, the revere, the power, and the prestige, I became less convinced of it.
Too many of my conversations surprised me in a way that could not be ignored. I often spoke about health care and remember speaking with my roommate who had grown up in the UK.
“So what do you do if you break your leg and you don’t have health insurance?” she asked.
“You can go to the emergency room and they will treat you but you will have a huge bill.” I explained.
“And what if you don’t have the money to pay?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure.”
“That’s insane. If you have a broken leg in England, you go to the doctor and you get it treated!”
This is often how my conversations went. Explaining to people how insurance companies could deny you coverage. How student loans often served as a barrier, rather than a vehicle, to receiving an education. How the cost of drug prescriptions went under-regulated and cost people their health. How hard it was to sit by and watch one school shooting after another and see members of Congress refuse to choose common sense gun reform. How, while billionaires were made here, they often did so at the cost of exploitation, ensuring that the opportunities for more billionaires become slim and virtually impossible. How the food industry went under-regulated, making our banned substance list to be half that of the EU, allowing known or understudied carcinogens into our food.
I felt like I was constantly having to explain, without necessarily meaning to, how much this exceptional country did not care about us.
But even for all the flaws I uncovered about America by viewing it through an outsider’s eyes, I grew to feel deeply patriotic in a way I never had inside the bubble. For all the areas that we can improve — from foreign policy to health care to education, I also realized that I had a far greater sense of my own personal ability to change the place I grew up.
The American exceptionalism in theory did not prove to be true to me. But the American optimism did.
Perhaps the most American thing about me is that growing up here, especially being born into a family of immigrants, instilled in me the very American idea that progress, development, and growth are both constant and attainable targets. Our slightly over the top egos stimulate the belief that the power to change, to influence, to improve, and the deep seated belief in democratic ideals is real, both from the inside and outside the country. We are not perfect but we live in a system that was made for and encourages progress.
For all the imperfections, there is also a hope and optimism that makes acknowledging our shortcomings a little softer. We are not this grand, historical, established power, we are a rusty, enthusiastic, and industrious work in progress.