Trapped by My Culture

I’ve spent most of my time abroad trying to hide my culture. Just like an actress tries to hide a large nose with flattering hair styles and makeup, I tried to hide my American-ness with Canadian flag patches and bad french accents. When I lived in Germany, I was Re-AhhN-non from Paris and acquired a collection of colorful scarves and a habit of speaking German with a french accent. Most people thought I sounded Polish or Czech, but I didn’t care, as long as no one mistook me for an Ugly American.

Because nothings worse than being mistaken for that. An Ugly American is demanding and arrogant and ignorant and can’t locate Canada on a map. And an Ugly American talks a little too loudly and enthusiastically about her no-carb diet and last week’s episode of Survivor. And I was secretly terrified that somewhere buried inside me was an Ugly American, just waiting to rear her ugly orange-tanned, bleach-blond head.

And to my horror, I found that such an American did in fact exist. Every once in a while, she’d make this surprise appearance. Like when she confidently asserted that Saipan was a city in China or that Thomas Edison was a former US president. It was always so humiliating when this happened because then the non-Americans would chuckle, shake their heads. “You’re such an American!” They’d say smugly, but what they were really saying was: “Poor little dumb girl.”

I used to wish that there was a type of cosmetic surgery that could permanently remove my culture. Or reshape it somehow. Like rhinoplasty. Or that movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I prayed to marry a European, move to London. I’d be like Madonna and develop a cute faux-British accent. No one would ever know that I was a former Girl Scout or that I used to spend my weekends grocery shopping at Walmart. I’d put that all behind me.

But then I spent some time in the Far East. I learned to meditate. I decided that since divorcing the Ugly American seemed to be an impossible task, I’d learn how to embrace her…and then transcend her. I’d become a highly evolved spiritual being who wasn’t controlled by the conditioning of her past. I wouldn’t be at the mercy of values and a belief system that was programmed into me before I’d even started school. I’d be like the Dalai Lama.

But then whenever I felt tired or stressed, I’d get hit with this intense craving for McDonalds french fries. “Come on, french fries are yummy!” The Ugly American would whisper into my ear encouragingly. And I would shake my head: “No, they’re gross…they’re salted sticks of oil soaked in artificial potato flavoring. You only want them because they remind you of when you’re favorite babysitter used to take you to McDonalds when you were 10.” But it’d always be a losing battle and the next thing I’d know, I’d be waking in a bed of McDonalds take-out bags and hamburger wrappers.

Somehow I think that the Dalai Lama doesn’t have this problem. He doesn’t suffer from black-out binges and surely his meditations aren’t interrupted by a persistent craving for Tibetan momos. It’s frustrating because as much as I like to think of myself as a flexible free-thinker, every day I discover new aspects of my personality that the Ugly American has wrangled away from me. Like the way I cook pasta or my sense of humor or the way I feel uncomfortable when I meet a non-American and have to refrain from asking ‘How are you?’. She’s in the way I smile at strangers, in the way I cross my legs on the subway and in the way I chew gum or roll my eyes when I’m annoyed. Even the style of clothing I wear! I read recently that Americans prefer wearing horizontal stripes whereas Japanese people prefer vertical. If even my taste in fabric patterns are dictated by my culture, is there any hope that I’ll ever be able to move past it?

I know that there’s nothing wrong with culture, just as there’s nothing wrong with being an American. I just always thought that if I traveled enough or exposed myself to enough varied perspectives and values, that I’d be able to pick and chose what I believed, completely objectively. And that I wouldn’t be trapped by unexamined, old ways of thinking that had been drummed into my brain at a time when I was still walking around in diapers. It bothers me that so much of my life operates on this subconscious level; completely out of my control. I totally feel trapped.

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Comments ( 7 )

  1. Anonymous

    I understand where you're coming from. I have friends who have told me they hate Americans. If I say anything dumb, I feel like it's attributed to being from the US. American bashing is so acceptable that it hurts, even if I'm not really patriotic. But however close-minded Americans are portrayed, isn't this prejudice in itself an example of that very quality?

  2. Chase

    I've opted for telling people "I'm American, but don't hold that against me" when meeting other foreigners abroad.

    I've also been told that I should just opt for the vague "wai-guo-ren" (foreigner), rather than the distinct "mei-guo-ren" (American).

    I understand and empathize with this too much.

  3. M. Richardson

    I've traveled extensively and lived abroad for extended periods too, and this used to really bother me. Then somewhere along the way, I realized that plenty of other nationalities are vilified and criticized as well-- Japanese in many parts of Asia, Chinese in the Philippines, and even the French in the states.

    I also realized that no matter how much disdain some foreigners have for McDonald's french fries, those restaurants around the world sure aren't going out of business!

    In the end, we're all a product of all the good and bad things about our own cultures. No shame in that.

  4. aimlessambition

    If it helps any, as a Canadian I still say "How are you?"

  5. Beth

    i would so rather be an american than be the kind of douchebag who holds someone's nationality against them. personally, i can't think of a single part of my cultural identity that should be inherently offensive to anyone. i like french fries? i make eye contact? i'm animated when i talk? fine. what would it even look like to have no cultural trademarks whatsoever? cultures are the bomb.

    americans are no uglier or prettier than anyone else on the planet. that might like a preposterous statement to some people but i don't really care. i am so over the anti-american thing. DUH there are plenty of legitimate complaints to be made against america, but there's no legitimate reason to look down on anyone because of where they're from.

    i think it's gross that so many people feel comfortable openly remarking on the astonishing inferiority and repulsiveness of my culture. that is such lousy, shallow bullshit. i would never deny or apologize for my nationality and i don't waste my time on anyone who expects me to. i wouldn't expect them to, no matter where they were from.

    this comment looks like a rant, oh well!

  6. the man hold his fist in the air

    As an American I believe we are the best thing going since Swine-Flu from a Taco Bell Drive-thru!

  7. Reannon

    Awww Beth, that's so, so true! Very well put! Good for you for not appologizing for being American. You're right...there's nothing to feel sorry about. \

    I like you're point about the importance of having cultural trademarks. What would be left if we were all scrubbed clean of our culture?

    I guess it just bothers me that I'm so controlled by it. That I'm not able to look at anything rationally and objectively...it's always filtered through the glasses of my culture.

    I haven't written about this (yet) but I had a really hard time at my last job...There were a lot of cutlural differences involved...and it was really tough for me to see their point of view. I was told that I was 'very American' in my attitude towards education (I.e., too fun and creative) and that wasn't viewed positively. I felt that my teaching methods were great but they didn't and I struggled with understanding why. I knew that if I was Japanese, I wouldn't be having such a problem.

    It was really tough for me to distinguish who was right in this situation. Did they not like my lesson plan because it was just different from what they were used to? Or did it just genuinely suck and culture had nothing to do with it?