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”.
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.