Somewhere in my college days, I took a couple semesters of French. I remember my professor very well, probably because he was a salt-and-pepper-haired dapper Frenchman who could really pull off a scarf. But also, I remember him because he never minced words when he talked about the differences between the French and Americans.
One day at the beginning of the semester, he told us all to stop smiling so much. I may have recoiled, it shocked me so much. I quickly uncurled my lips. I’m sure they didn’t stay there long. I can’t help it. Smiling is engrained in American DNA, just like the pathological enthusiasm that practically seeps from our pores.
He went on to tell us that in France if you see someone smiling at strangers on the street you assume they’re senile, drunk or without much sense. I had no idea that what I thought was a symbol of being earnest and open was telling legions of French people I was an idiot.
This knowledge kicked up the heat on an already simmering obsession with blending in. When I enlisted in the Navy, uniformity was hammered into my brain right along with the Sailor’s Creed and how to stencil my last name on my underwear. I still hear the singsong-y echoes of “one of these is not like the other” whenever I feel under or overdressed, laugh too loud or find myself at a fancy dinner, wondering if I can cut the slightly too big bite of tuna.
Before traveling I always read about cultural dos and don’ts, appropriate dress, what topics or questions are intrusive, how to greet, eat, and behave respectfully. Moving abroad pushed it into overdrive. Outside of my homeland’s patriotic bubble, I saw my country from a different perspective. News stories were from a different angle. I re-learned history from an outsider’s view. I met real poverty and real need and was left embarrassed at what I previously considered insurmountable problems.
These little shifts added up quickly. I felt like every imperialistic atrocity and dark point in our history had been emblazoned across my chest in a big scarlet U.S.A. Ok maybe not that drastic, but you get my drift. Basically, I realized I was insanely privileged simply because of where I was born. And also, that some of those privileges came at the expense of how my country treated and abused other people.
Even though it stings, I understand the logic that connects supersized smiles with being kind of wide-eyed and unsophisticated. I like this quote from an Indian American college student, talking about “America’s Monopoly on Enthusiasm”:
“In a way, Americans possess a naivety that comes with having certain rights and freedoms and living in a place where, regardless of its own issues, is a significantly better place to live than many other places in the world.”
I like that part, “regardless of its own issues.” Living abroad shined a light on a lot of things I took for granted. But it also showed me, in a real and tangible way, that no one country has a monopoly on embarrassing leaders, corruption, and bureaucracy. It’s been a relief to discover that people don’t see me as an extension of my embarassing president and that—surprise—we are not the exclusive source of badly behaving tourists.
I’m not sure why this lesson took so long. We’re all a product of our cultures, but the impression we leave is ultimately in our hands. I’m still the first to poke fun at myself for fulfilling some of the silly stereotypes like smiling and saying everything is amazing and wearing white sneakers. But on the other hand, it no longer sounds like an apology when I tell someone I’m American.
This post from Diane, a fellow American who’s living in France, is what got me thinking about American enthusiasm in the first place, so be sure to check it out!
Have you ever been surprised at how your culture was interpreted by others? Did you feel the need to tone down some of your cultural quirks? Before you go, be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.