Monday, July 23, 2012

A matter of perspective

Living outside the U.S. allows me to look at my home country in a much different way than I ever have before. There is nothing magical about this: it is literally just looking at something familiar from a novel angle. You discover new things, like how good Mexican food is almost nonexistent outside North America. You notice stuff you never did before, like how an election year is blissfully quiet from 7,000 miles away. You realize that you took things for granted, like a heterogenous culture.

So it was with some interest that I read an essay-slash-list about perceptions of America written by an American living abroad, pointed out to me by Friend of the Blog Eric. And it was an interesting read.

But ultimately, and surprisingly, I found myself disagreeing with a lot of what he wrote. In his eyes, Americans were much worse when viewed from overseas: inconsequential, emotionally stunted and uninformed compared with their fellow humans elsewhere on the planet.

His conclusions struck me as rather broad and his tone as vaguely condescending. According to the essay, he and I have lived overseas for roughly the same amount of time. So why do our opinions diverge? Let's take it point by point.

1) Few People Are Impressed By Us
Unless you’re speaking with a real estate agent or a prostitute, chances are they’re not going to be excited that you’re American. It’s not some badge of honor we get to parade around. Yes, we had Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, but unless you actually are Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison (which is unlikely) then most people around the world are simply not going to care. There are exceptions of course. And those exceptions are called English and Australian people. Whoopdie-fucking-doo.
As Americans, we’re brought up our entire lives being taught that we’re the best, we did everything first and that the rest of the world follows our lead. Not only is this not true, but people get irritated when you bring it to their country with you. So don’t.

This one is pretty accurate, but also not that insightful of a statement. There are few nationalities in the world that are innately interesting, right? And none of the Americans with whom I have lived overseas have gone around broadcasting their origins in the expectation that people will be intrigued. So No. 1 doesn't do a lot for me. (Although, you know, if we're going to compare 20th Century resumes, Americans really did invent and accomplish a lot of cool stuff.)

2) Few People Hate Us
Despite the occasional eye-rolling, and complete inability to understand why anyone would vote for George W. Bush, people from other countries don’t hate us either. In fact — and I know this is a really sobering realization for us — most people in the world don’t really think about us or care about us. I know, that sounds absurd, especially with CNN and Fox News showing the same 20 angry Arab men on repeat for ten years straight. But unless we’re invading someone’s country or threatening to invade someone’s country (which is likely), then there’s a 99.99% chance they don’t care about us. Just like we rarely think about the people in Bolivia or Mongolia, most people don’t think about us much. They have jobs, kids, house payments — you know, those things called lives — to worry about. Kind of like us.

Americans tend to assume that the rest of the world either loves us or hates us (this is actually a good litmus test to tell if someone is conservative or liberal). The fact is, most people feel neither. Most people don’t think much about us.

Remember that immature girl in high school, who every little thing that happened to her meant that someone either hated her or was obsessed with her; who thought every teacher who ever gave her a bad grade was being totally unfair and everything good that happened to her was because of how amazing she was? Yeah, we’re that immature high school girl.

I was right there with him on this one until I got to the second paragraph. Again, I don't think MOST Americans assume anything like that, let alone Americans who live abroad. And I would even go so far as to say that being American does actually elicit some interesting responses, at least in the places I have traveled and lived. America, for better or worse (often worse), has a huge impact in global affairs. So there are many non-Americans who care who wins our presidential elections, who our star athletes are and what our big companies do.

3) We Know Nothing About The Rest Of The World
For all of our talk about being global leaders and how everyone follows us, we don’t seem to know much about our supposed “followers.” They often have completely different takes on history than we do. Here were some brain-stumpers for me: the Vietnamese believe the Vietnam War was about China (not us), Hitler was primarily defeated by Russia (not us), Native Americans were wiped out largely disease and plague (not us), and the American Revolution was “won” because the British cared more about beating France (not us). Notice a running theme here?
(Hint: It’s not all about us.)

We did not invent democracy. We didn’t even invent modern democracy. There were parliamentary systems in England and other parts of Europe over a hundred years before we created government. In a recent survey of young Americans, 63% could not find Iraq on a map (despite being at war with them), and 54% did not know Sudan was a country in Africa. Yet, somehow we’re positive that everyone else looks up to us.

Now I'm starting to get a little annoyed. Yes, many Americans are punishingly uninformed about the rest of the world. But let's not pretend we are alone in this problem. That is the way life works: Everyone pays more attention to their own backyard than the next town over, the next state and the next country. If one really wanted to be cynical about it, one could even argue that the rest of the world is more aware of America than vice versa simply because of the situation I described above: America has much more of a direct impact on their lives than the other way around.

Anyway, he wanders a little bit here, asserting that people in Vietnam view the Vietnam War differently than Americans do and that Russians think they, not the European/American armies, defeated Germany. That people on different sides of the same conflict see it differently is hardly surprising; how does this reflect badly on Americans? If anything, he is saying that other nationalities are guilty of the exact same attitudes he is ascribing to the Yanks.

Also, how is it Americentric to think that the American Revolutionary War was about America? Still trying to figure that one out.

4) We Are Poor At Expressing Gratitude And Affection
There’s a saying about English-speakers. We say “Go fuck yourself,” when we really mean “I like you,” and we say “I like you,” when we really mean “Go fuck yourself.”
Outside of getting shit-housed drunk and screaming “I LOVE YOU, MAN!”, open displays of affection in American culture are tepid and rare. Latin and some European cultures describe us as “cold” and “passionless” and for good reason. In our social lives we don’t say what we mean and we don’t mean what we say.

In our culture, appreciation and affection are implied rather than spoken outright. Two guy friends call each other names to reinforce their friendship; men and women tease and make fun of each other to imply interest. Feelings are almost never shared openly and freely. Consumer culture has cheapened our language of gratitude. Something like, “It’s so good to see you” is empty now because it’s expected and heard from everybody.

In dating, when I find a woman attractive, I almost always walk right up to her and tell her that a) I wanted to meet her, and b) she’s beautiful. In America, women usually get incredibly nervous and confused when I do this. They’ll make jokes to defuse the situation or sometimes ask me if I’m part of a TV show or something playing a prank. Even when they’re interested and go on dates with me, they get a bit disoriented when I’m so blunt with my interest. Whereas, in almost every other culture approaching women this way is met with a confident smile and a “Thank you.”

This is another item where I think he's got a point, but takes it too far. Is it true that Americans are generally less forward than, say, Italians? Sure, maybe. Is it ridiculous to say open displays of affection in "American culture" are "tepid and rare"? Absofrickinlutely. For one, "American culture" of course encompasses a broad spectrum of backgrounds. I am dead certain that the people of New Orleans do not consider themselves a frosty bunch, for instance.

For another, he eliminates the possibility of true emotion in Americans by stating that consumer culture has somehow made it impossible for us to interact with each other in a sincere, meaningful way. So even if we WERE hugging each other like he wants us to, it wouldn't mean anything. But really, the biggest issue is the first, and it is a common problem in this essay: he is describing 300 million people as a monolithic bloc (while patting himself on the back for being so refreshingly outgoing).
An American enthusiastically embraces local culture (while the falcon embraces him).

5) The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great
If you’re extremely talented or intelligent, the US is probably the best place in the world to live. The system is stacked heavily to allow people of talent and advantage to rise to the top quickly.

The problem with the US is that everyone thinks they are of talent and advantage. As John Steinbeck famously said, the problem with poor Americans is that “they don’t believe they’re poor, but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” It’s this culture of self-delusion that allows America to continue to innovate and churn out new industry more than anyone else in the world. But this shared delusion also unfortunately keeps perpetuating large social inequalities and the quality of life for the average citizen lower than most other developed countries. It’s the price we pay to maintain our growth and economic dominance.

In my Guide to Wealth, I defined being wealthy as, “Having the freedom to maximize one’s life experiences.” In those terms, despite the average American having more material wealth than citizens of most other countries (more cars, bigger houses, nicer televisions), their overall quality of life suffers in my opinion. American people on average work more hours with less vacation, spend more time commuting every day, and are saddled with over $10,000 of debt. That’s a lot of time spent working and buying crap and little time or disposable income for relationships, activities or new experiences.

Wow. This seems way off base. The quality of life for the average American and even the poor American is pretty good relative to a lot of the world. There are lots of ways to quantify happiness, and it is absolutely true that someone living in a shanty can be as content as someone in a suburban ranch home. But the comforts of clean water, a steady supply of electricity and rule of law--just to pick a few low-denominator items out of thin air--aren't really deniable. What the author is saying here is the things HE values in terms of quality of life, he does not see in the U.S. This is of course absolutely fine and explains why he enjoys living outside the country so much, but does not justify the blanket statement that The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great. It does, however, justify that statement that in America, The Quality of Life For Mark Manson Is Not That Great.

6) The Rest Of The World Is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us
In 2010, I got into a taxi in Bangkok to take me to a new six-story cineplex. It was accessible by metro, but I chose a taxi instead. On the seat in front of me was a sign with a wifi password. Wait, what? I asked the driver if he had wifi in his taxi. He flashed a huge smile. The squat Thai man, with his pidgin English, explained that he had installed it himself. He then turned on his new sound system and disco lights. His taxi instantly became a cheesy nightclub on wheels… with free wifi.

If there’s one constant in my travels over the past three years, it has been that almost every place I’ve visited (especially in Asia and South America) is much nicer and safer than I expected it to be. Singapore is pristine. Hong Kong makes Manhattan look like a suburb. My neighborhood in Colombia is nicer than the one I lived in in Boston (and cheaper).

As Americans, we have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us. They’re not. Sweden and South Korea have more advanced high speed internet networks. Japan has the most advanced trains and transportation systems. Norwegians make more money. The biggest and most advanced plane in the world is flown out of Singapore. The tallest buildings in the world are now in Dubai and Shanghai. Meanwhile, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

What’s so surprising about the world is how unsurprising most of it is. I spent a week with some local guys in Cambodia. You know what their biggest concerns were? Paying for school, getting to work on time, and what their friends were saying about them. In Brazil, people have debt problems, hate getting stuck in traffic and complain about their overbearing mothers. Every country thinks they have the worst drivers. Every country thinks their weather is unpredictable. The world becomes, err… predictable.
Who believes that the rest of the world is a slum? (and why would you install WiFi in
a taxi?) This is really battering a ragged straw man. If you want to say there are lots of neat places around the globe, do it--but it's just silly to pretend you know the attitude of an entire country toward the rest of the world. In other words, I would argue it is naive to assert that one person could definitively know that Americans "have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us."

There are some odd comparisons in here too. Singapore is clean, but it's also a police state. The A380 (which I think he is referencing), is made in Europe and is not the most advanced airliner now that the Boeing 777 has rolled out. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is tall but pointless, unlike the vast majority of skyscrapers in the rest of the world. And Hong Kong, where I live, is great, but I literally can't think of any way in which it makes Manhattan look like a suburb. I'll bet Manhattan has better Mexican food, too.

Hong Kong does arguably have a better skyline, though.

7) We’re Paranoid
Not only are we emotionally insecure as a culture, but I’ve come to realize how paranoid we are about our physical security. You don’t have to watch Fox News or CNN for more than 10 minutes to hear about how our drinking water is going to kill us, our neighbor is going to rape our children, some terrorist in Yemen is going to kill us because we didn’t torture him, Mexicans are going to kill us, or some virus from a bird is going to kill us. There’s a reason we have more guns than people.

In the US, security trumps everything, even liberty. We’re paranoid.

I’ve probably been to 10 countries now that friends and family back home told me explicitly not to go because someone was going to kill me, kidnap me, stab me, rob me, rape me, sell me into sex trade, give me HIV, or whatever else. None of that has happened. I’ve never been robbed and I’ve walked through some of the shittiest parts of Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

In fact, the experience has been the opposite. In countries like Russia, Colombia or Guatemala, people were so friendly it actually scared me. Some stranger in a bar would invite me to his house for a bar-b-que with his family, a random person on the street would offer to show me around and give me directions to a store I was trying to find. My American instincts were always that, “Wait, this guy is going to try to rob me or kill me,” but they never did. They were just insanely friendly.

Hmmm, I might give him this one. People everyone--including the U.S.--are nicer than one might expect. My only criticism is that like many other complaints he has leveled at Americans here, this one applies to anyone outside their home turf... not just us.

8) We’re Status-Obsessed And Seek Attention
I’ve noticed that the way we Americans communicate is usually designed to create a lot of attention and hype. Again, I think this is a product of our consumer culture: the belief that something isn’t worthwhile or important unless it’s perceived to be the best (BEST EVER!!!) or unless it gets a lot of attention (see: every reality-television show ever made).

This is why Americans have a peculiar habit of thinking everything is “totally awesome,” and even the most mundane activities were “the best thing ever!” It’s the unconscious drive we share for importance and significance, this unmentioned belief, socially beaten into us since birth that if we’re not the best at something, then we don’t matter.

We’re status-obsessed. Our culture is built around achievement, production and being exceptional. Therefore comparing ourselves and attempting to out-do one another has infiltrated our social relationships as well. Who can slam the most beers first? Who can get reservations at the best restaurant? Who knows the promoter to the club? Who dated a girl on the cheerleading squad? Socializing becomes objectified and turned into a competition. And if you’re not winning, the implication is that you are not important and no one will like you.

Interesting. It's hard to see enthusiasm as something worthy of criticizing, even if it does happen to be something universal to all Americans (and it of course is not). More oddly, if the author has spent a lot of time in Asia and the Middle East, he will know that status, in the form of title, wealth and possessions, is a much bigger deal there than it is in your average American city.

At any rate, I haven't seen any indication in my time abroad that Americans like mundane things a lot and always have the emotional dial at 11. Wait a second... if we're always emoting at 11, how can point No. 4 be correct? Perhaps one can tepidly overemote, but I'm having a hard time picturing it.

9) We Are Very Unhealthy

Unless you have cancer or something equally dire, the health care system in the US sucks. The World Health Organization ranked the US 37th in the world for health care, despite the fact that we spend the most per capita by a large margin.

The hospitals are nicer in Asia (with European-educated doctors and nurses) and cost a tenth as much. Something as routine as a vaccination costs multiple hundreds of dollars in the US and less than $10 in Colombia. And before you make fun of Colombian hospitals, Colombia is 28th in the world on that WHO list, nine spots higher than us.

A routine STD test that can run you over $200 in the US is free in many countries to anyone, citizen or not. My health insurance the past year? $65 a month. Why? Because I live outside of the US. An American guy I met living in Buenos Aires got knee surgery on his ACL that would have cost $10,000 in the US… for free.
But this isn’t really getting into the real problems of our health. Our food is killing us. I’m not going to go crazy with the details, but we eat chemically-laced crap because it’s cheaper and tastes better (profit, profit). Our portion sizes are absurd (more profit). And we’re by far the most prescribed nation in the world AND our drugs cost five to ten times more than they do even in Canada (ohhhhhhh, profit, you sexy bitch).

In terms of life expectancy, despite being the richest country in the world, we come in a paltry 38th. Right behind Cuba, Malta and the United Arab Emirates, and slightly ahead of Slovenia, Kuwait and Uruguay. Enjoy your Big Mac.

American health care does not suck. Access to American health care sucks. Even being 37th in the world on the WHO list does not suck, although it should be a lot better, given the resources of the U.S.

I'm right there with him on the food quality thing, though. That is starting to change a little, but in general, yes, processed foods are always going to be easier and cheaper to get in the U.S., but also worse for you. So we've got that working against us. Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma is a great book--check it out.

Now, having said that, this is again not an issue limited to America. The UAE, which he refers to above, has a ridiculous number of genetic diseases and one of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world. Their health care system, in my personal experience, is pretty bad and is riddled with discrimination of various types. So I guess my biggest issue with this point is the implication that Americans are uniquely unhealthy... and that our health problems are not obvious.

10) We Mistake Comfort For Happiness
The United States is a country built on the exaltation of economic growth and personal ingenuity. Small businesses and constant growth are celebrated and supported above all else — above affordable health care, above respectable education, above everything. Americans believe it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and make something of yourself, not the state’s, not your community’s, not even your friend’s or family’s in some instances.

Comfort sells easier than happiness. Comfort is easy. It requires no effort and no work. Happiness takes effort. It requires being proactive, confronting fears, facing difficult situations, and having unpleasant conversations.

Comfort equals sales. We’ve been sold comfort for generations and for generations we bought: bigger houses, separated further and further out into the suburbs; bigger TV’s, more movies, and take-out. The American public is becoming docile and complacent. We’re obese and entitled. When we travel, we look for giant hotels that will insulate us and pamper us rather than for legitimate cultural experiences that may challenge our perspectives or help us grow as individuals.

Depression and anxiety disorders are soaring within the US. Our inability to confront anything unpleasant around us has not only created a national sense of entitlement, but it’s disconnected us from what actually drives happiness: relationships, unique experiences, feeling self-validated, achieving personal goals. It’s easier to watch a NASCAR race on television and tweet about it than to actually get out and try something new with a friend.

Unfortunately, a by-product of our massive commercial success is that we’re able to avoid the necessary emotional struggles of life in lieu of easy superficial pleasures.

Value judgment alert! As I mentioned above, happiness is impossible to quantify, but comfort arguably plays a role. How can you assert that someone who feels happy is not happy? Isn't feeling happy the definition of happiness? What the author means here is that he does not find those things comforting. But the rest of America can make up its own mind.


I agree with the author that the best part of living abroad is literally being in a new world, surrounded by a different language, different culture and different way of life. It's edifying and it keeps you on your toes. It gives you a different perspective.

But I don't think it grants enough of a god's-eye view to make judgments about an entire nation's worth of people, let alone judgments that are essentially reflections of stereotypes. An Emirati living in Britain might find that the British view his people as ostentatiously wealthy, lazy or undereducated, but that doesn't mean he has learned "the truth about Emiratis."

It's hard to say what nearly four years in the Middle East and Asia has taught me about Americans. I don't think there is any overarching lesson. I have learned a lot about other people's perceptions of us, but those vary wildly from country to country and of course person to person. Street-level Americans, in my experience, tend to be viewed as enthusiastic (ask a British person about how we overuse the word "awesome."), optimistic, culturally clumsy but well-meaning and a direct representative of the U.S. government. In the Middle East, America was--like beer--seen as the cause of and solution to all the world's problems, and no one was afraid to talk politics.

The Americans I have met--Marines, teachers, CIA officers, diplomats, journalists, businessmen, activists--do not adhere to any of the stereotypes laid out above, but there may be a selection bias in that they chose to leave the country for various reasons.

So in the end, yes, my biggest problem with the essay is the broad brush that is deployed over and over. Indeed, if anything, living overseas has made evident to me that being American is really being part of a giant mess of differences. Americans don't look the same, they don't act the same and they don't all share the same views. That's a good thing.

And of course in America, great Mexican food is right around the corner.


Pietro Devon said...

of course he painted with a broad brush. of coarse this does not apply to every single american. he never says it does. in fact, there is a disclaimer saying so right at the top of the essay. he even states that other cultures are also screwed up. still, the fact that others may share your ignorance, for example, may make your ignorance more palatable, but not necessarily excusable. in any case, it's more about acknowledgement.

i have plenty of issues with his list, but my biggest one is that you need to be an ex-pat to see any of this.

Galen Pickett said...

It would make an interesting document, the CV of the United States. Although "United States of America" is the official name of something like 3countries (in translation). I like to think of US as El Norte, which is a nice echo of the war between the states.