What People Abroad Really Think of Americans

Living in a small Canadian town taught me the near-obsession of outsiders' scorn. Finally, I'm ready to push back.

We litter. We are loud. We are fat. We eat standing up. We drive aggressively. We don’t make eye contact. We don’t open doors for people. We rush. We are rude to wait staff in restaurants. We are prone to domestic violence. We are spoiling for a fight. We put our nose into others’ business. We are sanctimonious. We think we won the War of 1812. We manufacture bad cars, brew bad beer and eat flavorless potato chips. We won’t stop waving the flag. We are bad sports, especially during the Olympics. We think we are the center of the universe, and that money entitles us to everything. But the worst of our sins? We brag—nonstop.

These are just a few of the charms of Americans, according to my friends and neighbors just north of the border. It’s been five years since I married a boat builder and moved from New York City to a tiny, briny town on Nova Scotia’s lobster coast, and for five years I have gritted my teeth and smothered my indignation.

I hear these kinds of extempore critiques constantly—in jests and jibes, in casual conversations at the hair salon, the bookstore, the coffee shop, the day-care walkathon. My Nova Scotian friends and neighbors are not at all shy about sharing their observations and opinions with me, even though they know perfectly well that I am the devil that lives among them. They seem to enjoy it, in fact. They get a twinkle in their eye.

A few weeks ago, at a bachelorette party, I asked a few of my fellow townsfolk to share any further attributes they don’t like about Americans—“Come on! Don’t be shy”—and they were only too delighted to lengthen the list: Our schools are no good; we don’t know how to dress for cold weather; we are incapable of laughing at ourselves; our smiles look fake …

This is the boondocks—proudly so—and in the boondocks, if you want to know what’s on everyone’s mind, you go on Facebook. Facebook is the public-address system, community bulletin board and curmudgeon’s soapbox of small towns like this one, and it was there that I realized just how much time and passion Canadians devote to nursing their dislike.

To give you the precise flavor of the nonchalant America-slagging that, I have come to believe, goes on around the globe with more frequency than most of us could bear to imagine, here is an exchange I witnessed on Facebook this very morning:

Bella, the minister’s wife, updates her status: “Mmmm, bacon-wrapped scallops for appetizers. What else should I cook up for some American colleagues who are coming for dinner tonight?”

Margaret, a hairdresser, replies: “Other Americans.”

***

We have, as a nation, always been comfortable with the idea that kooky totalitarian dictators would demonize us. I don’t think our feelings are hurt, for example, when in North Korea—where July is the “Month of Joint Anti-American Struggle”—toddlers are dressed in miniature military uniforms to celebrate National Children’s Day by riding in toy tanks and gleefully shooting arrows at cartoon renderings of Barack Obama’s face. That sort of histrionic loathing is what you’d expect, or even want, from the bad guys. But as we head into 2015, even our old allies in Europe are frowning in our general direction.

Some mornings, reading The New York Times, I feel like the lonely teenager in “Heathers,” and wonder, is Britain our last friend?

Barack Obama, in his first presidential campaign in 2008, promised to rehabilitate our image in the eyes of the world. And it worked—for a little while: His election was followed by a statistical bump in international goodwill as nations far and wide were swept up in the wave of warm-and-fuzzies. But that euphoric embrace swiftly turned into disappointment, and then into anger as we entered a new era not of progress and liberty but of peeping and prying and “black site” detentions.

2013 wasn’t a good year. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the N.S.A. and its spy games weren’t a hit with Angela Merkel, et al., in Germany. Pakistanis—who once had been so in love with the romance of America that they almost rioted during Jackie Kennedy’s state visit in 1962, jostling to catch a glimpse of her emerald evening dress—were understandably livid about America’s remote-operated drone strikes. (Protestors carried signs that recast Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase “I have a dream” in the image of Obama: “I have a drone.”) In Hungary, President Viktor Orbán—taking a cue from his chum Vladimir Putin—decided that the American model of liberal democracy had failed completely; he encouraged state-controlled media outlets to ratchet up to a rabid pitch their editorial rants against America (an “obese society,” in the words of one prominent Orbán crony, that “marches under the faded flag of liberalism, pitifully”).

By 2014 our reputation was up against the ropes. With each fresh news cycle, our spangled stars only seem to fall further from the sky. According to a Wall Street Journal article that ran just this week, 73 percent of Russians have a “very bad” or “generally bad” attitude toward the U.S.; a poll done earlier this year indicated that only 10 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view. German citizens apparently dislike America and Russia equally. That really seems to be saying something.What about Stalingrad?

Of course, political disapproval is one thing, and cultural scorn is another. Obviously, the former fuels the latter—but, as an American abroad, I experience the culture-hatred as the more unpleasant of the two, because it feels more personal. To paraphrase that exemplar of perky Americanism Sally Field: They hate us. They really hate us!

In Canada, anti-Americanism—usually genial, often blithely gratuitous, occasionally vituperative—is a cultural preoccupation bordering on an obsession.

One of my favorite displays of exuberantly irrational America-hating came from an otherwise well-brought-up acquaintance who—between swigs of her pink highball cocktail during a girls-night-out dinner at the one fancy restaurant on the isolated stretch of shoreline I now call home—treated the table to an impassioned denouncement of American chocolate. Yes, that’s right: chocolate.

“I absolutely cannot eat American chocolate,” she said, as the other ladies nodded their agreement. “It’s way too sweet. So sweet! It’s horrible.”

For some reason, that morsel of culinary bias annoyed me more than everybody else’s heaping generalizations. Just what did she mean by “American chocolate,” I asked. Hershey’s? No, she said. So, Richart? Li-Lac? Nunu of Brooklyn? Roberta’s of Denver?

“Chocolate,” she replied, giving me a look that had turned rather steely. “Made in America.”

My long-suffering husband shrugged off my wild-eyed response—which I let rip, naturally, only after I was safely home. “It isn’t easy living next door to a superpower,” he said, with maddening sympathy for the candy bigot. (Mind you, my husband is originally English and something of an anti-American zealot himself. His contribution to the festival of faults: “Americans are horrible recyclers,” he says.)

I can testify that the Canadians I’ve encountered, at least, believe that Canada is better in every way than the U.S.A.—with exceptions granted for the relative price of gasoline and the prevalence of free shipping on Internet shopping down south. Many Canadians even believe that Thanksgiving is originally a Canuck holiday. They sit down to a table laden with turkey and cranberry relish and sweet potatoes, just like we do, on their version of Thanksgiving—held, slyly, in October—but, citing a historical meal of thanks to God held in Newfoundland by the English navigator Martin Frobisher in 1578, they insist that our national tradition is, sub-rosa and in genuine fact, theirs.

I’ve swallowed my egotistical Yankee chuckles about Canadian potato chips (ketchup flavored!) and Canadian sanctimony, and I’ve bitten my arrogant New York tongue about the comparative politeness-versus-rudeness ratio. Why? Because Americans like me simply cannot trash-talk other nationalities as the other nationalities do us. It just seems … you know, unseemly. Can you imagine the offended looks on the faces of my friends and neighbors if I were to let rip about the deficiencies of the rural Canadian medical system or the culinary arts of the Maritimes? (Cheddar cheese and mayonnaise do not belong on green salads, people.)

But when I am venting to my husband again in the privacy of our bedroom, I find myself pointing out the contradictory fact that Canadians, by their own accounting, are humble, marvelously generous, modest, community-spirited, self-effacing and well-mannered. Indeed, they will tell you so at the drop of a hat. Canadians are peacekeepers, not warmongers, they say. But best of all? Best of all, Canadians—according to themselves—never brag.

Am I the only one who finds this humorous? I mean, in Canada, flag-waving competes with hockey as the national sport … while, ironically, the Americans I know don’t go around waving the red, white and blue. It isn’t done. Patriotism isn’t fashionable.

Me, I’m an anomaly. I don’t feel the need to apologize for being American. I come from a long line of what you might call proud and determined East Coast individualists, and I frankly really dig the radical tradition of the U.S. of A. I’m thoroughly gratified to be a political and spiritual descendant of Thomas Jefferson and of Walt Whitman, our forefather-champions of individual liberties. My scripture is the Bill of Rights. What other nations don’t realize is that most Americans—unlike me—don’t tend to sit around enumerating to others, or even themselves, everything great and glorious about our country. Most Americans would be embarrassed to do that. On the contrary, they are usually only too eager to tell you what is terrible about the United States.

I can do that, too. Here are a few dislikes of my own: the demented ideology that cherishes gun rights above all other constitutional rights; torture in the name of freedom; yes, okay, terrible recycling habits; and, also, as mom to two black children adopted from Ethiopia, I could say a few pointed things about America’s profound and absolutely unresolved problem with racism.

But just a few weeks ago, earlier this fall, as the world was reeling from the horrors of Gaza and the outrage of Ferguson, Missouri, something snapped in me. It snapped, I guess, because these watershed socio-political moments forced me to reflect on my status as an American. Basically, I just woke up one morning and decided not to pretend anymore. I decided to let loose my inner patriot and tell my Canadian friends what I really think.

And here is what I really think: You might have Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams on your team, Canada; you might even have gone so far as to put Gordon Lightfoot and Bryan Adams on postage stamps. OK, you might even have Neil Young. I cede you that one. But we have Wilson Pickett and Willie Nelson and Bessie Smith and Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder and Leonard Bernstein. We have Muscle Shoals and Tin Pan Alley and the Great White Way and Nashville. We invented punk and Philly soul and bebop and rockabilly and swing and hardcore and outlaw country. We invented Levi’s, and the zipper, and lip gloss; the bra and the Zoot suit; “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Minnie the Moocher” and “Sugar Magnolia.” The Twist, the Electric Slide, the Charleston, and the Dougie.

America is not just the country that brought you McDonald’s. We brought you bourbon and jambalaya and popcorn and ice cream cones and clam chowder and brownies and pumpkin pie. Yeah, I know that the robotic arm on the Space Shuttle, the “Canadarm,” was built in Toronto—you keep telling me!—but what about paddlewheel steamers and Apollo 13, and the laser, the transistor, the atom-smasher, the Internet, the 3D printer, and the rest of the Space Shuttle itself?

There! I said it. You see? The very best thing about America is its kaleidoscopic diversity. How can anyone—from anywhere—hate American culture when America is so many, many, many, many things?

With a positivism that I like to think is quintessentially American, I have at last found an upside to living abroad as a kind of maligned Other. It’s made me reexamine my own biases and convictions, and—eventually—forced me to find the courage of them.

Just one last thing, Canada: I’m sorry, no. You did not invent Thanksgiving.

 

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