Many people have difficulty categorizing Americans. Actually, we cannot be categorized. We are so different, and yet we are so much the same. It’s the quirky, crazy things that make Americans what we are proudest of being: American.
For most Americans it is difficult to avoid the superlative when discussing our country and its attributes. We are brave, creative, compassionate, and sometimes silly. Often, we are all of those things at the same time. We are a mélange of colors, cultures, and creeds, but we all believe in the law of the land that defines America: liberty and justice for all. That creed inspires awe in those who don’t have such freedoms.
Americans want to be loved and admired. We are arguably among the most envied, the most imitated, and the most unloved people in the world. We Americans are distinctive in our dress or undress, our often-strident voices, our love for the underdog, our idiosyncrasies, and our fierce independence.
We believe that with the honor and privilege of being among the wealthiest and most technologically advanced democracies in the world, comes an obligation to fight for the same rights for everyone else on Planet Earth. We willingly send our first-born or only-born to distant lands to defend and help those less fortunate. Despite our generosity – to a fault it may be said – we are occasionally castigated by some for our capabilities and extraordinary willingness to share.
Americans have a zest for living. We treasure our traditional values of freedom of the press, of religion, of assembly, and of individual rights. We believe in assembling peacefully to air our grievances . . . and sometimes not so peacefully, as during the birth of our nation. America was forged in the revolution of 1776 when the colonists revolted against British colonial rule. That revolution continues to inspire. The freedoms demanded in 1776 are the same freedoms desired by millions of people who make desperate attempts to reach American shores.
Americans believe in the dignity of hard work, and we know with an inborn certainty that with hard work anything can be achieved. Americans worship, or not, as our spirit dictates, but we demand the freedom to do either, and we defend everyone else’s right to do the same. Slavery and segregation are an ugly part of American history, but the nation rose from the horrors of that shameful past, and through laws and the goodwill of most Americans, established the goal of liberty and justice for every American, no matter the color or creed.
Americans are an extremely generous and giving people. Americans reach out to the world through its government agencies, the UN agencies, and private exchange groups, and we are among the first to assist in relief efforts in any part of the world. We are the people some love to hate; however, on a one-to-one basis, most nationalities love Americans even if they don’t always understand us. The success of the Peace Corps demonstrates that. Young and old Americans leave their comfortable homes to take their expertise abroad, and spend two years living in rustic conditions, endeavoring to uplift the lives of the poor by demonstrating what can be accomplished with meager resources. In return, the volunteers learn about other cultures, are sensitized to the poor, and they discover that feet were indeed made for walking.
Americans want to live well, and we obsess over how to live extremely well. A two-car garage is no longer the norm, but is mandatory. Americans are contradictory. Families love to eat out, yet we search for restaurants that feature “home cooking,” and, as at home, we want “all you can eat.”
Americans have a love affair with their cars, and enjoy hitting the open road. There is a strange reluctance to get out of our cars until we get back home. For that reason, there are drive-up banks, drive-up restaurants, drive-up telephones, drive-up dry cleaners, and it has been said that someone somewhere is working on a gadget to enable Americans to pump gas into into their tanks without getting out of the car.
The bywords of the younger generations are wash and wear, carry out, and the all-time favorite: buy now-pay later, a lot later, and the later the better, or if at all. Instant gratification is the order of the day. Americans no longer carry money. We carry plastic credit cards that we use to pay for groceries, movies, fast foods, clothing, the mortgage, in short, everything. Of course, that means that a considerable number of Americans are deep in debt; however, we go on happily charging whatever we desire, adding to our liabilities.
Americans visiting other countries are sometimes gregarious, loud, and obnoxious. This usually comes from feelings of inadequacy in not knowing the local language. It is only in the recent past that Americans have recognized the need to learn a foreign language. The attitude previously though it may seem odd, was that everybody in the world should speak English. As quiet as it is kept, English is not the official language of the world. This news does not, however, lessen our insistence that everyone coming to our shores, or even in their own countries, should speak English.
Americans are people of great humanity with a unique sense of justice and fair play. We are proud of living in a democratic country, and are patriotic to a fault. We are at our best in times of adversity. An outrage committed against one American in a foreign country is one committed against all Americans, and the country bonds in solidarity. We Americans are magnificent in our collective mourning and outrage. In times of great tragedy, we wave the Stars and Stripes, the national symbol of unity, a rallying declaration that as long as that flag flies, Americans will not be defeated by whatever tragedy. We come together in anger and grief to demonstrate our support for the fallen, and to make a potent statement of our pride in being Americans.
When Americans and others, were attacked and killed in places with strange sounding names – Beirut, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi – those of us back at home shuddered but felt certain that such death and devastation could never happen on American soil. September 11, 2001, shattered forever our notion of safety at home, and changed the welcoming character of Americans. We no longer welcome the world’s tired, poor and hungry because they might be terrorists.
When America sneezes, some countries catch a cold, or come down with other unpleasant maladies, and they feel it most in their bare money coffers. During the years of the Cold War, the United States and Russia competed against each other by pouring money and aid into poor countries in which they had interests, in an attempt to win those countries over to their side. An African proverb says when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. And so, it was when the two powers engaged in tugs of war over small countries. When the Cold War ended, many of those countries learned to their great surprise that America, as other nations, has interests, not friends. It was then that the “grass” truly suffered.
Americans have some quirks that are more distinctive than others. Perhaps the French invented perfume, but Americans have the market on deodorants. While some cultures might prefer natural body odors to the use of deodorants, Americans have an anathema to body odors – our own and anybody else’s. We are personally offended if we get a whiff of anything from anyone that doesn’t have spices, flowers, or soap in its name.
That might help to explain the other oddity to foreigners. Americans do not want people to stand too close to them; we value our space. When an American talks to someone from another country, we stand several feet from the visitor. This causes the visitor to get closer. The American inches back, and this weird dance continues until a wall is reached. At that point, the American makes a hasty exit.
When Americans say, “Time is money,” we mean it. We want to meet, greet, and get on with the business at hand. We do not mean to be rude; we just don’t want to waste time. In some cultures, it is customary to meet, sip tea, inquire about the other person’s nephew’s cousin’s step-uncle, the weather, and current events on Mars. By the time the foreign person asks about the American’s fifth cousin’s niece, our eyes have glazed over, and we appear to be in a catatonic state.
Such are the ways of Americans, a people courageous, gentle, noble, warm, funny, generous, and above all, quirky – the ultimate word that can be used to adequately describe those of us who proudly call ourselves Americans.
Charlene Duline has spent twenty years in diplomacy and international public affairs at U. S. embassies; among first group of Peace Corps Volunteers, Cuzco, Peru, 1962-64. Education: M.S. Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), 1986; B.A. Journalism, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, 1975.