I saw an article about Americans on holiday bemoaning the fact they’re on one long Donald Trump apology tour. A fellow blogger felt similarly after a recent trip abroad.
I had to laugh, just a little. Of course I’m sorry if anyone’s vacation is interrupted by Europeans trying to figure out what the heck is happening. But remember…you get to go home.
Try living overseas and trying to explain it.
I’ve been ‘Murica Splaining for the last 8 years. I’m exhausted. An American expat reader based in the UK said her most oft asked question has gone from the quaint inquisitiveness of “What exactly IS Thanksgiving?” to the gob-smacked “What the hell is going ON over there?”
And while it’s a big year in U.S. politics, Americans are far from the only people who have to explain the sometimes batshit crazy things that go on in their home countries. The morning after Brexit, countless Brits blew out the fuses on their electric kettles boiling water for the endless cups of tea it would take to explain what the hell had just happened.
An Italian friend once collapsed in relief next to me, confiding that at long last he could relax–with the rise of Donald Trump, Italians were off the hook as global dumbasses for electing…and re-electing Berlusconi.
An Australian reader talks about the right-wing senator just elected, a Basque friend explains why her country has had no leadership for six–scratch that–seven months. Canadians demurely apologize for the general awesomeness of Justin Trudeau…because Canadians are just pretty darn nice and I think deep down inside they wish everyone had a hunky, progressive Prime Minister.
Expats are unofficial goodwill ambassadors without the diplomatic immunity, the free parking, or Angelina Jolie’s pout. As an American overseas I am a walking, talking representative of the United States. If I act like an asshat, it doesn’t reflect well on anyone. And trust me, Europeans are just now getting over the stereotype of the clueless American tourist with a fanny pack and socks with sandals. I’m trying hard to move us forward.
Most people are armed only with a hodgepodge of snapshots and stereotypes from books and movies, news programs and anecdotes. We piece them all together and end up with a lop-sided cartoon version of one another. I get asked all the time to explain the gun thing. Brits get asked about dentistry. The French get asked why the French love to go on strike. The Danes why they need to be right up your backside in the check out line at Netto. The Germans are teased for their Deutschland Deutschland Uber-Efficiency, the Spaniards for their elastic sense of time. It’s a little bit stereotype and a little bit truth, part myth and part misunderstanding. For instance, British dentistry isn’t really that bad.
Living outside your country and culture, meeting others away from theirs, is a fantastic way to demystify the stereotypes of others as well as debunk the ones of your own.
But….sometimes it’s tough. While I can answer with reasonable clarity, “What IS the electoral college and why does it exist??”, it’s harder to explain away the questions a lot non-Americans have about the United States.
What’s the deal with the guns? Why don’t you guys have health care for everyone? Don’t you think it’s wrong that you don’t have maternity leave? Why don’t Americans travel? What’s the deal with the guns?
It’s hard enough explaining the quirks and quibbles of your motherland under normal circumstances. Add in the spiciness of an election year and things get kind of crazy. In 2016, which is quickly turning into the year of anything goes, it’s pretty much been non-stop Lucy! We’ve got some ‘splaining to do!
You don’t realize how strong the marinade of culture is until you’re forced to explain or rationalize it, until you are forced to be an ambassador for the good, the bad, and the batshit crazy. Sometimes it’s difficult to shrug off the mantle of stereotype (no, we don’t all have guns slung on our hips, Annie Oakley style…yes, we take teeth seriously). It’s hard to explain the ethereal, elusiveness of the American Dream to someone who hasn’t grown up with it under their pillow. That, in turn, makes it difficult to explain why the ghost of that dream is still relevant. Which makes it even more difficult to explain that as much as I loathe Donald Trump, I understand why he struck a nerve.
I’m not sure how eloquently I can explain it, any more so than my British friends can adequately explain why a small majority voted to distance their green and pleasant lands further from Europe or how my Canadian friends can impart the secrets to electing a kick-ass leader.
So sure, I’m ‘Murica splainin’, but that guy with the bowler hat and brolly over there? He’s Blighty splainin’. The beret-topped Frenchie is explaining the importance of labor unions to the French psyche while the Aussie is patiently explaining that they don’t keep kangaroos as pets.
We’re all explaining.
Except maybe the Canadians who are just chilling out, watching hockey.