Thursday, March 29, 2012

So American

As our move date gets closer, I find myself becoming unexpectedly sentimental about my American-ness. I’ll never forget a friend’s comment at a late-night College party when I asked where the nearest 24 hour McDonald’s was. “You’re so American” she said. When I ordered a Malibu and Coke at a restaurant in Paris, I got the same response. And again when I requested the DJ play a Nelly song at the Nigerian Yacht Club.

“You are so American.”

So often this is said in a condescending manner. Occasionally it’s good-humored teasing. But either way, I know it’s true: I am so American. But what is it about me exactly that so screams my nationality? And will this cripple me as I try to live outside my home country?

I’ve been reflecting more and more on these questions, trying to call to mind what makes me uniquely and unequivocally American. I think that culture is so intrinsic that it can be hard to identify what makes your own unique, kind of like describing the taste of water.

I was born and raised in South Louisiana, but it wasn’t until I moved to West Texas at age 24 that I realized how heavily my geography and culture impacted my identity. To this day, I feel like a fish out of water in Texas and desperately miss Cajun Country. If I experienced so much culture shock in crossing one state line, it’s hard to anticipate what crossing an ocean will do.

When we recently went to the Houston Rodeo to see the Zac Brown Band, they performed Devil Came Down to Georgia. As I stood in that packed arena, listening to a classic country song, I identified that moment as being uniquely American. Other things that come to mind are college sports (specifically SEC football), outdoor music festivals, Target, summer camp, country music, Thanksgiving, Spring Break, crawfish boils, and a thousand other little things. Also, I find that Americans in general tend to exude confidence, friendliness, and ambition.

Those are some of the good things. But on the other hand, being American sometimes implies priorities of consumerism, convenience, and self-entitlement. Either way, I know that I am as All-American as it gets. And so I worry that I may struggle more than I think with the adjustment to Scottish life.

Aberdeen does have both a McDonald’s and a Starbucks, so if I get desperately homesick, I can always grab a Quarter Pounder or Caramel Macchiato. And on the other hand, what I’m most excited about is stumbling upon those things that are uniquely Scottish; getting to eavesdrop on a cultural conversation that the Scots themselves might not even identify as special. I’ve simply got to change my perspective, stop thinking like an American, and embrace this opportunity to immerse myself in a different cultural experience. I’m pretty sure that’s one of those ‘easier said than done’ sort of things.

What I’m most ambivalent about is the possibility of raising children abroad. Jon and I don’t have kids yet so I’m getting ahead of myself, but since our 10 year plan involves both overseas living and starting a family, it’s a factor to consider.

On the one hand, I think affording our children global experiences is such a gift. On the other hand, I mourn the fact that they may grow up without little league tournaments or vacation bible school; that I may not be able to relate to their childhood because it differs so much from my own.

I had one of those magical middle-class American childhoods and I get a bit sad thinking that my kids might miss out on those same experiences. It’s scary because I’m not sure what their own childhood memories will be replaced with or how to give our children a sense of their own American-ness.

I met a few people in college who had grown up abroad and they mostly seemed very mature, fascinating and well-rounded. A few others couldn’t handle it and ended up transferring to schools in Europe and Canada. They simply didn’t identify themselves as American and felt too much culture shock when finally immersed in their own country. I know their parents felt saddened by this rejection, though they knew this was a risk when raising their children outside of the US.

Ultimately, I want to offer my children varied and numerous opportunities. As of now, we believe the best thing for our family is to take this adventure and explore the world. We will have to constantly reevaluate this philosophy as we go and reassess what the best situation is for our family at any point in time.  

I recently found this book in the travel section of Barnes and Nobel. It’s a collection of essays written by Ex-pat women defining what it means to be an American living abroad. I can’t wait to read this one, though I think it might be more meaningful to wait until we get to Scotland to start.  Maybe I’ll even read it at Starbucks, because that would just be so American of me.  

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