Obviously American

Obviously American August 18, 2016
Me being an obvious American?



We were sitting in a Starbucks in London, my sister-in-law, her two young kids, and I, not even talking. We were just sitting there, with our coffee and muffins, settling into our breakfast, when this woman comes up to us and says, “You’re obviously American,” and starts talking to us.

How? What? Why?

How did we look obviously American? What does that even look like? I mean, I fully understand it when the 3-year-old is being….a 3-year-old. There were plenty of times when I know we were the stereotypical loud Americans. But we weren’t even talking! Obviously American. What? I needed to know what that meant. I can’t stand being self-unaware.

After talking to some other people, I learned that not only do Americans smile different, but that we also physically take up space in the world differently – more fully and obviously – and that the dead giveaway that morning was the double-stroller. Is strollering it around really American? I had been wondering what Europeans do when they have 2 young kids, because there weren’t a lot of strollers around, actually. And what do kids in Iceland do without playgrounds? Like, what do they do outside? Mysteries of being an obvious American, I suppose….

Speaking of being an obvious American, Donald Trump talked the other day about only letting those into the U.S., “who share our values and respect our people”.

Now, what does he mean by that? What, exactly, are American values? I know what Americans think when he says that, but what we think and what we actually prioritize don’t always line up. What values do we actually live and shape ourselves by? What does it mean to be obviously American? How do we know what we don’t know? And how does what we know or don’t know about who we are as residents of a country affect our parenting and shape our kids?

Obviously his proposal is wrong, mean, and illegal, but the arrogance underlying it is obviously American. Americans basically think our way of life is best, and obviously so should you.

So what is our way of life? I mean, if we expect people coming in to the country to know American values, shouldn’t we be able to say what they are?

Yes, being American is awesome because we have Hamilton and Hollywood, air-conditioning and smoke-free restaurants, soft baked beans, ice water, screens on our windows, shower curtains and fitted sheets (it really is the little things), but American ValuesTM also includes a (continuing) history of preferential treatment to whiteness, a system of policing that emerged from slave patrols, a financial commitment to prisons instead of education, and the shunning and shaming of the poor. Just for starters.

If we want to be self-aware about what it means to be ‘obviously American’, then we should know about the travel warnings to our country issued by other countries. American values includes things like freedom, idealism, and T.G.I. Fridays, but also student loan debt and expensive healthcare. Sure, we win lots of Olympic medals, but we’re also destroying Puerto Rico.

A constitution that enshrines freedom and 3/5ths personhood guarantees a country continually conflicted about what liberty means and who benefits from it. So when we blather on about values, respect, and being American, we need to blather in a way more complex than ‘God bless the U.S.A.’.

We have the responsibility, not only for ourselves and our kids, but for everyone who is affected by the ways in which the U.S. takes up and over space in the world, to look honestly at our past and present and engage the tension of it.

Maybe someday that’s what being obviously American will mean.

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  • Brandon Roberts

    A: i’m not bothered by the american stereotype as an american because it’s painfully accurate for at least a lot of us a lot of us are fat a lot of us are uneducated about the world but still we have luxuries other people don’t. B: i think trump meant people who understand freedom of speech is important rape is bad etc. etc. i do agree terrorists and other severe criminals who just want to cheat the system should be kept out the innocent hard workers who just want a better life of course should be allowed. (and yes i understand almost every other countries view rape as a bad thing as they should)

    • Mirlo

      Trump doesn’t believe in freedom of speech. He believes in freedom of speech only for those who agree with him. Everyone else is a loser, an idiot, etc.
      Americans don’t believe rape is bad. If we did, why would college-aged rapists be walking free in order to protect their futures? Why would judges be able to give a rapist a pass because the little girl he raped looked older than 14?

      • richard

        really ? why are you making a blanket statement about Americans based on the actions of a few cookoo judges ?

      • Brandon Roberts

        “if we did why would college aged rapists be walking free to protect their futures” first i meant the majority of american people do (males merely accused of rape are demonized and have the stigma follow them forever i get why accused rapists would have this since rape is a terrible crime) second money and power corrupt individuals use this to sway the favor in their order and people or institutions that do this should be heavily punished. “why would judges be able to give a rapist a pass because the little girl he raped looked older than 14” maybe the judge thought he didn’t know (still messed up though). and i do understand that in america male rape isn’t seen as a big deal (female pedophiles who assault young boys get off waaaaaaay too easy , no i’m not trying to make a double entendre) in britan the legal definition makes it so only men can get raped

  • As an aside: I spent 3 years in Iceland as a kid. The biggest difference is that children are respected and protected. It’s not a country totally free from abuse, of course, but children are allowed to exist in public spaces in a way American children aren’t.

    For every American playground there’s a geothermally heated community pool– there are massive water parks everywhere that are ridiculously cheap to get into. I played a lot on the rock formations …

    Iceland was the best experience of my childhood.

    • oh I bet. That would be so cool. I really liked it there. I didn’t even think about the pools and kids – we assumed the weather and upkeep for it was a big part of it too. We thought about doing one of the local pools but ended up not. We did BL of course, but it would have been cool to see a more local spot. There was an article in the newspaper while I was there, written by an American who had moved there and it was about the quiet/non small talk kind of behavior Icelandic people have and how different that was to her…..and the whole point of the article was that people in Iceland should be more like her and outgoing Americans. I was just like, omg.

  • When we lived in Argentina, we had a 4 month old and we seemed to be the only people who ever used a stroller (or were searching for a changing table). In fact, even umbrella strollers were so expensive there, I couldn’t imagine buying one. Looking around, I realized everyone was just carrying their babies. And few of the subway stops had elevators, so we were constantly carrying our stroller around. It became somewhat comical. What was so “everyday” for me was a unusual (and probably undesired) object on crowded subway trains. Also, I resonated with this article because I literally used to teach a chapter to my sociology students that listed “American Values.” One moment has always stuck out to me when a student wanted to add family. I was like, “Yeah, hmmm, family’s missing. Let’s add it.” Now that I’m older and married and have kids, I realize that “family” is not really an American value as evidenced by our cultural norms and family policies.

    • Ha yup. We had to carry that thing down so many stairways. It makes you realize how non-accessible so many things are and I was just imagining people in wheelchairs having to get around…made me thankful for the ADA here.

      • Yes! It seemed like once a week, we were asking, “What do folks using wheelchairs do???”

  • richard

    I wish you could’ve written a more balanced article. For all it’s faults, the USA has a lot of good too. in spite of double strollers and Donald Trump.

  • Tim

    I can’t imagine from your description that you were using a knife and fork; that could possibly have been it. If you were, chances are the fork wasn’t in your left hand. Dead giveaway. The English also tend to eat with the fork upside down. The handedness of the fork seems to be much less of a thing in Scotland though. Double prams (strollers) are also common in Scotland.