I’ve done a fair amount of traveling in my life thus far. Not nearly as much as I would like, but I’ve lived in Bolivia, backpacked across Europe and have been stuck in war zones in the Middle East. The amazing thing that I always discover – and promptly forget when I leave foreign nations – is how incredibly American I am. This might sound like an obvious observation, one that does not need a newspaper column to digest, but I, like many other Georgetown students from the United States, forget that as international as we may be, we are still very much Americans.

Americans are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to comprehending other cultures. We are surrounded on one side by Canada, which is really just like America except with hockey, better health care and a few more “eh’s.” On the other, we are next to Mexico, which has so many of its citizens in our country that it is almost another state. Because of this and the sheer size of our nation, we are simply not raised in proximity to other cultures that do things differently or speak different languages. People frequently mock Americans for this, but it’s unfair. If I lived in any country in Europe, I would be closer to other cultures than most Americans are to California, a society that is very different from that of the East Coast and that I do, to fair degree, understand. So, perhaps this criticism of us as culturally insensitive, self-centered idiots is unfair.

I find that in most third world countries I visit, I am generally asked three questions:

1) Where are you from?

Answer: New York City, as I identify more as a New Yorker than as an American.

2) Are you married?

Answer: Not yet, nor anytime in the foreseeable future.

3) Do you want to marry my daughter? (At this point a daughter is produced out of thin air to be judged if fit for marriage.)

Answer: No thank you, I’m not ready to get married … especially to your daughter who is in dire need of western orthodontics (to be fair though, so am I).

Being a New Yorker, I rather stereotypically consider myself much more cultured and unique than most Americans, but when traveling, I discover more and more how incredibly preposterous this idea is. This morning, I was walking around the Roman form and asked my fellow Hoya and traveling companion Colin Judd (COL ’09) if he thought that we stood out as tourists. In about 30 seconds, he pointed out my blue jeans, Old Navy shirt, EMS backpack, aviators, sneakers and Rome guidebook. He further pointed out my incredibly fair complexion, light hair, blue eyes and tall stature. Even when dressed differently to go out on the town, my identity is easily betrayed as American, or, at the very least, a foreigner. Perhaps this is not surprising, but the real surprise comes from the fact that the more I travel, the more my inner being identifies as an American, and my love of the United States grows.

Being a democrat and a New Yorker generally means that you must criticize America’s faults, frequently overlook its credits and ridicule the pro-American sentiments that many other citizens of our nation profess. But ironically, the more I travel, the more I come over to certain aspects of the school of thinking of those that take pride in not even owning a passport. As much as I complain, moan and bitch about our policies, our politics and our limitations on freedom, the more time I spend away from America, the more I appreciate its uniqueness and why people from foreign countries regard it, with so much reverence, as the land of opportunity.

Even in Europe, that area of the world that most closely resembles the United States, there are things that seem utterly ridiculous to people like me who are used to American ways. The concept of all stores closing for three hours everyday to have lunch is ridiculous. Having 30 people waiting to use an ATM seems inefficient. Furthermore, the customer service, which I frequently complain about in America, is, in fact, far superior in our nation (perhaps this is because we tip waiters). Having religious iconography on your flag (Greece), a monarchy that’s powerless (England) and a majority of businesses that don’t take credit cards (all of eastern Europe) is counterintuitive to my idea of a safe, rational, efficient and functioning society. The United States is a nation of extremely hard working, rational and friendly people. Where there’s a problem, it’s fixed either by the government or by capitalism. We are a nation that is defined by not accepting the status quo and constantly attempting to improve. We should be more proud of this.

Of course, there are many problems in our nation. Racism, sexism, wealth disparity, violence, militarism, drug use and xenophobia are all unfortunate and very visible parts of America. But I think that we often forget that our nation is a beacon of hope to the world. What makes our nation strong is our constant criticism of it and our constant desire to improve it. In a way, our never-satisfied thirst for improvement is one of the greatest driving forces of the strength of our nation, and we should not allow our American apolgism and self-criticism to vanish. But, every once in a while, it’s important to realize two things. America is not the only system in existence; there are many other ways of doing things and many other cultures that are different, that we could learn important lessons from. But at the same time, we do indeed belong to a nation built on admirable ideas; we should be proud of our country and realize that the best way to serve it is to observe its problems but also applaud and recognize its strengths.

Nick Greenough is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and a former opinion editor of THE HOYA. He can be reached at greenoughthehoya.com. He is currently attending King’s College in London, England. This is the final installment of NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND.

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