On Being American

This week I came across a New York Times feature called On Being American in honor of the 4th of July. Inspired by this, I thought I would share some of the thoughts I’ve had about being an American in my little more than a year living in Georgia. I’ll preface by saying, I’m sure my perspective would be quite different if I were living abroad in a Western developed country. But I’m not. I live in a country precariously positioned between east and west with a strong soviet legacy which, while developing, is not yet developed. My friends in Western Europe will rightly have a much more critical perspective on being American. And perhaps some things that I will attribute to “being American” are actually just Western. I’d be curious to get the feedback of those who have or are living in Western Europe.

Coming to Georgia and running headlong into the cultural norms and expectations here, I have come to be much more aware of the ways in which I am irrevocably American. First, my tendency to smile at strangers. In Georgia, that means either you’re crazy or, more charitably in my case, foreign. Georgians don’t give smiles away. They don’t even smile in pictures. Smiles are generally reserved for friends and family. Americans, by comparison, are a friendly people. Except for New Yorkers (just kidding, kind of). As a foreign woman, you learn quickly not to be friendly or smile particularly at men here. They take it as an invitation to approach you. They have some pretty offensive ideas about Western women in general which makes interactions with them less than desirable. So, it doesn’t take long to learn not to smile. Sad, but true.

But the most American quality I have, which is impossible for me to shake because it is so fundamental to my identity, is my profound value of individuality. This is the quality that has made my time in Georgia the most challenging. Georgians value community over the individual, an idea that before coming here would have struck me as positive. And it does have its positive points. For example, when I had job shadowers staying with me recently, one evening I hosted 10 Americans at my apartment for dinner. Two of my neighbors, seeing the parade of people coming to my apartment at dinner time, promptly came over with liters of wine for our dinner. And this isn’t unusual behavior for my neighbors. I’m regularly gifted wine, food, cake, invited for supras, etc. But there is a downside. I feel a bit as if I live in a fish bowl. And lest you think this is just because I am a foreigner, which does undoubtedly draw a bit more interest, let me assure you, as a Georgian I would also be living in a fish bowl. Particularly as a single woman. Part of being a society committed to community in Georgia is a sort of policing of your neighbors. Your neighbors make sure you are living according to Georgian values. For women, this means being a “კაი გოგო” or “good girl”, an oft-used compliment that I have come to have a visceral reaction to. It is always meant in the best way, but I can’t get past the fact that one becomes a “good girl” by internalizing all of the rules and values of a society that severally restricts women’s behavior. Failure to do so leads to a bad reputation which a Georgian woman can’t shake and impacts her relationships across the board. So, as much as the recent news from home about the SOTUS decision in the Hobby Lobby case frustrates me, I can’t help but be reminded that I currently live in a country where birth control isn’t even available and buying tampons at the pharmacy is a shameful thing. But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Back to individualism vs. community. My mom will tell you that I was born independent. So, living in a country that not only doesn’t value individualism but punishes those who live by different values chafes against me on a daily basis. Although I have become accustomed to it to a certain extent, it is still the most difficult thing about living here. And it has made me incredibly grateful to be from a country that values individualism over all.

One could make the case that, as an American, I don’t have to abide by Georgian customs and rules. Many of my European friends have made that case and live accordingly. Even Georgians have insisted that I’m American and don’t have to. However, the Peace Corps really drills into you the need to maintain a good reputation in your community. Failure to do so will impact the effectiveness of your service. And Peace Corps volunteers do serve in Georgia longer than most other volunteers I’ve met. If your community doesn’t respect you, they won’t work with you. So, I think Peace Corps makes a reasonable case. And I choose, to the best of my ability, to live accordingly.

The other day I was having a conversation with my landlord’s son Bruno. The occasion was the post-party party for his recent wedding. We were joined by a number of his friends. Bruno just recently returned from the US after living in Philadelphia for 12 years. Thus, his English is pretty good. His friends spoke little to no English. Bruno tends to be a bit harsh about Georgians who don’t speak English. I don’t judge as my Georgian is not much better than their English. While we were sitting there, he said that his friends were talking about how they want to go to America. He said, “they don’t know what it is like there now.” I didn’t ask for clarification of what he meant, but I assume he meant with high unemployment, a weak economy, and an environment that is less than friendly to immigrants. He rightly pointed out that with their lack of English and specialized skills, America would not live up to the vision they have of it. It’s a shame.

One of the things that I’ve really come to appreciate while in Georgia is the incredible diversity of the United States and all of the benefits that brings us. Georgians are very proud of their culture, particularly of their food, music and dance. So, anytime you are doing a cultural presentation, they want to know about your traditional foods, music, and dances. It is an odd question to ask an American. For them, our traditional foods must be pizza and hamburgers, but they actually come from Italy and Germany respectively. And any American abroad will tell you they spend far more time pining for Mexican food than pizza or hamburgers. Traditional music? I don’t know. The following types of music were created in the United States: blue grass, country, blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, rap, and hip-hop. I’m sure I’m missing some. That’s pretty incredible. But all of that came from people whose ancestors originated from other continents, most coming to the Americas as slaves from Africa. And dance? Couldn’t even make an educated statement on that one. But it can’t be denied that the United States has been incredibly influential through out the world culturally. And while I know a lot of that is due to our incredible economic strength and our ability as capitalists, I believe it is also because the United States has served as an incubator for new ideas and art forms. With so many cultures mingling together, you are bound to come up with art forms that are new, different, and compelling. I would argue that this is the same reason why the United States has been so innovative in technology historically. Our country isn’t only made up of people from all over the world, it is made up of people who immigrated. It takes a special kind of person to leave everything they know, everything that is comfortable and go to a new and strange place to start over. These people are typically driven in a way that the average person is not. And it takes a tremendous amount of courage and daring. A country that was founded by such people is bound to build some of those values into its fabric.

So, when I think of what it means to me to be American, first and foremost, I think about how we have traditionally valued individual freedom. And that, in general, people live their lives as they like. There are always those moralists who try to impose their values on others, but in general Americans aren’t fond of that. I also value our diversity and all that it brings, not the least of which is the food. It frustrates me that my friends here in Georgia who are hyphenated Americans have such a hard time convincing Georgians that they are in fact American. Maybe we should do a better job of reflecting our diversity in our media exports.

I’ll never be a patriot. To me, patriotism is the same thing as nationalism. And nationalism is second only to religion in causing wars. But I have developed a new appreciation for my country of birth since being here. And this 4th of July, I’m happy to celebrate its birth. Which I’ll be doing at the beach with a bunch of my fellow PCVs.