Living in the U.S., it is pretty difficult to get an outside perspective on our country. You have to really seek it out by reading articles on foreign news sites, talking to people from other countries, or (gasp!) watching films with subtitles. Which is to say that if you aren’t that inclined to do it, it probably isn’t going to happen that often. Sometimes, though, the opportunity just falls in your lap. For example, when I was recently in China as part of an international program, I talked to young professionals whose birth countries included Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, Norway, Iran, and of course, China.
So, what do they think about the U.S.?
First, the positive.
People generally admired our food, our diversity, our popular culture, our landscapes, and our openness. Those who had been here marveled at the rich variety of sights, sounds, and experiences. Even if they didn’t necessarily like peanut butter or pumpkin pie, they were impressed by the tapestry of heritages, and our relative success at integrating them, as well as the breadth of choices and opportunities available to ordinary people. They also spoke appreciatively of our creativity, especially our ability to take an idea from a spark of imagination through to implementation. They pointed out that nowhere else could have produced Silicon Valley, Broadway, Motown, and Wall Street. And, they remarked on our sense of ease and confidence as we encountered new cultures (this last point they picked up from watching Americans get to know each other and everyone else on the tour).
And that’s true! We are industrious, friendly, open-minded, curious, and have can-do spirits. You may not think we have these things as much as we used to, or may feel the American Dream is stagnating, but talk to people who come from countries without these traits (or visit them in person) and you’ll realize just how valuable and unique they really are.
And yet . . .
There’s a pretty big “but” after all that glowing admiration. Except for one person, who had previously lived in San Diego and loved it (and who wouldn’t? It’s San Diego!), nobody expressed a desire to bring their skills and talents here. For starters, they were perplexed by social issues that their countries don’t have. Those from Western Europe and Australia, in particular, were mystified by our political gridlock over issues considered resolved in their countries, such as gun control and universal health care. They were disturbed by our epidemic of police and school shootings, our apparent acceptance of inequality and poverty, our seeming disinterest in revitalizing our basic infrastructure, and our insistence on personal choice even when it contributed to obesity and other social problems. They also couldn’t understand why the world’s wealthiest nation doesn’t guarantee any paid vacation whatsoever – or maternity/paternity leave, for that matter – or how a country whose universities were once the envy of the world now breaks its students’ backs with astronomical tuition and crippling student loans. You could say that overall they see us as having incredible potential, vast resources, and unparalleled dynamism – while having fallen into a strange era of self-inflicted dysfunction and entropy.
By contrast, those from Iran and China were less concerned with these domestic quarrels and took a geopolitical angle, which makes sense given the nature of our countries’ relationships. The Iranians and some of the Chinese perceived the U.S. as a war machine, hell-bent on global domination and destruction, and asked why we were so afraid of them when the rest of the world was so afraid of us. Iranians wondered how Americans hated them so passionately that we would impoverish them with sanctions, and some Chinese asked why it was reasonable that the U.S. was stationed in Asia Pacific, thousands of miles from home – but somehow still saw China as an aggressor in extending its own buffer zone in its own region. In other words, they wanted to know who polices the world’s policeman, and how a country championing human rights can starve or bully its opponents into submission.
Now, reasonable Americans may disagree with these views, or point out key considerations that outsiders are overlooking. I would expect us to! It’s completely natural that people in other parts of the world – some with very different histories and cultures – would have different perspectives. And just because somebody has an opinion hardly makes it true or accurate. And, when talking with people from countries where the media is tightly controlled, you may be forgiven for taking their views with a grain of salt – although to be fair, I’m not sure if their ignorance is much worse than ours, given our short attention spans and our insistence on only following news that supports our own opinions.
But these reservations aside, what does it mean that people see us this way? Is it all just a branding problem? Do people see Donald Trump and our acrimonious 24-hour political news shows and assume that’s the whole story? Or, are we just a distraction for their own social problems, from the Grexit to radicalized youth? Perhaps these are both the case. And yet, I think there is some truth in their observations. They don’t know why our country chooses to live like this, and sometimes, neither do I.
And at the same time, perhaps this dance between progression and regression is the essence of our American Exceptionalism. After all, the shining era remembered for putting a man on the moon was also the era of the KKK burning crosses and protests over the Vietnam War. Perhaps this incongruence shall ever be. Consider that in the two weeks I was away, the news from home included both the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and the church shooting in South Carolina. Maybe, as these events suggest, we are taking two steps forward and backward at the same time. We’ve come a long way, with a long way to go.
What I do know to be true, and what seems to be reflected in others’ opinions of us, is that America is a place that defies understanding and simplistic interpretations, but perpetually inspires and disappoints. Let’s just hope the admirable qualities win out, and that our better civic selves step forward as we address the many, many issues we face as a modern society. I’d really love to hear someone say, on my next trip abroad, that they wish they could live in the U.S. And I’d like to feel proud that I do.