Sunday, July 4, 2010

On 4th of July

I wasn’t going to post at all today, and especially not on this topic as I feel it isn’t mine to tackle. But then I read this wonderful post over at Confessions of a Watery Tart. I started writing a comment to her post, but before I was done typing I realized I had accidentally written a post of my own. So, since today is a special day (did y’all know it was the Norwegian queen’s birthday? I bet you didn’t. Most Norwegians don’t… But that is hardly the point. It is Independence Day in the US, and frankly, that is more important – even in Norway):

The United States of America is probably the one country in the world EVERYONE, regardless of whether they have been there or not, has an opinion about. Add that it is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that the images floating around about the US are varied and often misunderstood or plain wrong.

Personally I have gone through several phases in how I have seen the US. During the Clinton years I was too young to know the meaning of the word "critical", but it wouldn't have mattered all that much anyway, since the world was still recovering from decades of Cold War-ness, and since we (in the West, at least) mostly agreed with the US, it was difficult not to still see the Americans as "the good guys".

I grew up, became a little more aware and a little wiser, and along came Bush. Regardless of whether you liked his politics or not, Bush definitely had one quality that made him collide with many people in other parts of the world. Everything he said was black & white. "You're with us or against us." "You're right or wrong." I think Norway mostly fell into the "with" and "right" categories, but we still felt queasy about it. Many Norwegians disliked Bush, then by extension the US, and eventually, Americans in general. (Which is ironic, because that meant that we saw the world in black & white, just like Bush...)

What turned me around again, were two things: first, I got to know some actual, real, flesh and blood Americans (since I, after all, can't be said to *know* Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp even if I've seen many of their movies). Through the online community, and through my studies abroad, I started to learn that Americans were as different, and as human, as the rest of us. Many of them became close friends. Some of them agreed with the Bush government. Some of them didn't. All of them were much more than their political and religious beliefs.

Secondly, Obama came to save the day. Please note that I am not saying that he is right or wrong, that I agree or disagree, or that you should agree or disagree with his politics. But the message he sent to the world – "we are willing to talk to you again" – definitely made a whole lot of difference. Let me just add that the jury is still out on whether this is a lasting difference or if it merely was a temporary after-effect of the reintroduction of grey zones in world politics.

By the time I finally got to visit the US last fall, my mind was filled with any number of ideas of what this country would be like. That is where I made my first mistake. As I said, the US is probably one of the most diverse countries in the world. It is nearly impossible to say what it is “like”, because it is like everything and nothing all at once. Mysteriously silent cowboys? Sure. Loud-mouthed rednecks? Absolutely. Clever and intelligent academics. Definitely. Sweet old ladies with the Bible close at hand? Yes, ma’am! Emo teenagers, stay-at-home moms and donut-munching police officers? All of the above. There is hardly a stereotype you cannot find in real life in the US. But in addition there are hundreds, thousands, probably millions more.

I only got to see a small part of the country when I was there. And yet this was enough to make me realize that I had been gravely underestimating the variety of the country. In Europe we tend to get offended when people refer to our vast and diverse continent as just “Europe”. You’re not European, you’re Italian or Swedish or Estonian or Hungarian. When Americans say they’ve been to Europe, we roll our eyes and count to ten before we ask them to specify the countries they visited. And yet we never do the same about the US. Whenever I talk about my stay last fall, I say I visited the US – I never say “I lived in Maryland”. Even if I now know that Maryland is a whole lot different than for instance Minnesota (which I also visited).

I remember writing a school report once, I’m guessing fifth grade or so. It was supposed to be about a country. I thought I’d be clever and ask my relative, Darlene, to give me some inside information about the US. So I wrote to her, asking what the main characteristics of the US were. I remember being slightly disappointed at her reply – which was something along the lines of “I don’t know where to start, can I perhaps tell you some of the characteristics of Minnesota specifically?”

I now know what she meant.

There probably isn’t any day as well-suited to celebrate the American diversity as Independence Day – the commemoration of the Declaration of Independence. In this declaration lay the foundations of the rights and freedoms that make the US the country it has become. Using these (at the time) new ideas stemming from the Enlightenment created a unique cornerstone for political thinking, both in the US and in many other countries. These are ideas that we still hold to our heart, and they have continued to play an important role in the development of international Human Rights for instance.

For this I admire the United States. There are many other reasons for me to admire this country (most have to do with the Americans I have met). In additon, there are a lot of things I don’t admire, and a lot of things about the way the US presents itself and is presented by others to the world that annoy me, or sadden me, or disappoint me. But those are issues I don’t feel the need to get into today. Because according to the American way of thinking (I am generalizing again, I know…) I am at liberty to believe what I want to believe, and I have the right to disagree. For that I am thankful.

So, regardless if you agree with the politics of the US or not; regardless if you love or hate whatever it is you perceive as “American culture”; regardless if you yourself is American – I encourage you to take some time today to consider your opinions about the US. Are you absolutely sure they are all correct?

Happy “birthday” United States of America, and queen Sonja of Norway ;)


Chary Johnson said...

Mari, this is really a great post. As I read, I was thanking you all the way down the page. I agree that the world may have a very jaded view of the US and that it is difficult to pin us with one stereotype when we are really as diverse as any country.

I also am happy that you mentioned that bit about calling people "Europeans" or saying that we went to "Europe." I will definitely be more conscious of specifying a particular country's name. So instead of saying, "I have always wanted to go to Europe." I'll say instead, "I want to got to (insert country here). Thanks.

Happy Birthday Queen Sonja!

welcome to my world of poetry said...

A wonderful post, I didn't know it was the birthday of the Queen of Norway,
I wish all in the United States, The Queen of Norway and my grandson Joshua A very Happy Birthday.


Mr. Stupid said...

Wow. This was a great post. I didn't know it was the birthday of the Queen of Norway either.
Happy 4th. Hope you have a good day...:)

Cruella Collett said...

Chary - thank you for that reaction. I am always a little scared I will offend people when I dip my feet into political waters... I can deal with disagreeing with people, but I hate offending them. (Then again, I always knew you were one of the nice ones *hugs*)

Yvonne - as I mentioned it isn't a well-known fact here either, as she isn't the Head of State (her husband is). But I think we're probably supposed to put our flags up... Happy birthday to your grandson too :)

Cruella Collett said...

Mr. (you snuck in on me there...) - thank you :) I mean to make it a good day - hope you'll have an excellent one too!

Summer said...

Very well said; it's nice to see what a Norwegian thinks of my country. We Americans are extremely diverse, you're right--and we suffer from plenty of prejudices within ourselves. Take your stereotypes--there are all those and more just within my city of 2,000. Perhaps some more than others, but the fact remains that you can't judge a people by their geography.

Happy birthday to Queen Sonja, and thanks for the post. :-)

Aubrie said...

This is a great post! It's really neat to see what someone living outside the US thinks. I'm glad Obama is helping the US reconnect to the rest of the world.

Boonsong said...

This is an excellent post - chirpy yet inquisitive and stimulating. Thanks for this.

Thanks too for your delightful comment left on my blog. I have reciprocated your follow button activity.

Looking forward to reading more of your profound giraffability, but please don't stick your neck out too far.

All the best,Boonsong

Cruella Collett said...

Summer - such a good point: "you can't judge a people by their geography". I love that :)

Aubrie - thank you! I have always loved learning about new cultures myself, and the US certainly gave me plenty of opportunity to do that!

Boonsong - heh, I fear that my neck is permanently stuck too far out seeing as I chose to write my master's thesis about the Middle East and the US... You're bound to stir trouble when you hang out by the fire, right? (Ooo, I loves me some mixed metaphors!)

But thank you :)

H.B.Markor said...

This is an incredibly insightful post and I applaud your ability to speak with such clarity on touchy topics.

How the outside world views a country is something I don't think of often, so when a friend of mine came home from a trip to Germany, I was surprised when she told me how concerned the people were there with how they were perceived. The biggest fear that the young people she met expressed was that they were thought of as Hitlers Germany still, and not a modern society.

It is nice to learn how outsiders see us here, if not a little odd to think that all over the world unknown people have opinions about us.

M.J. Nicholls said...

I always thought they were called New Yokers, ya know, folks from New York.

My assumptions was that they controlled the distribution of fresh egg yolks, and were to be treated kindly.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

We are a mixed bunch, aren't we?
And even we tend to forget how big the USA is, which means a large diversity of culture - especially when you consider Hawaii and Alaska as well.

February Grace said...

What a beautiful and thoughtful post. Thank you for telling the rest of the world that there are a lot more kinds of people here than you'd think and your right- things do vary a LOT between states.

Just because we were born here doesn't mean that we all fit a generalized stereotype (though if I fit one it would be of the lunatic, reclusive writer).

Some of us are, in reality, about as frightening as a rabbit in a fuzzy bath robe and slippers. *points to self*.

You know, today I will tell you something- I spent my entire teenage life absolutely Norway obsessed.


It's all Pal Waaktaar's fault.

I still can't believe they're breaking up...*sob* I just got their last album as I always get them- imported- and it's lovely.

I used to always think that a-ha was my favorite thing about Norway-but I'm thinking that you're pretty special. And you should take that as a huge compliment- you have no idea how obsessed with them I have always been.


Cruella Collett said...

Maria - thank you! I am so glad you think that :)
I have also come across Germans who said exactly that - they fear they are still being judged for crimes committed before they were even born. In my opinion that is just ridiculous, in fact, it's just as ridiculous as thinking the US only consists of one type of people.

Mark - I believe you just pinpointed another stereotype... (They are to be treated kindly, though. New Yolk is the eggsiest city in the world!)

Alex - absolutely! When I was in the US last fall I lived in Maryland, but the wife in the family I stayed with was from Hawaii and the husband was from Alaska. So I know exactly what you mean ;)

Bru - oh, well, NOW I am blushing! You're putting me up there with a-ha?!? *fans self* I'm a Norwegian export!

Seriously, though, I think it's awesome that you're an a-ha fan. I like them too, though I am just too young for being all fangirly on them during their first era (and probably too old, or still too young, for the second era). I too think it's a shame that they are splitting up, though, since their music has been a part of my world all my life.

(I'm slightly surprised you picked Pål, seeing as Morten seems to be the one that attracts the girls. However Pål is definitely the creative one)

KyAnn (like Cayenne Pepper, only HOTTER) said...

I just found your super awesome blog and I'm your newest follower. I was your 100th follower!


Cruella Collett said...

KyAnn - wow, thank you for becoming my 100th follower! I feel like that calls for celebration of some sort - may I offer some virtual champagne? Of course you Americans already have the celebration part covered today ;)

KarenG said...

What a wonderful post! My Norwegian ancestors came here back in the late 1800's and settled in Nebraska. I remember my grandmother not wanting to speak Norwegian or cook the dishes of her Norwegian mother because she wanted to be "American." Now I think it's much better that immigrants are holding on to parts of their culture while embracing being American as well. I love that we're a melting pot. Thanks for your words & thoughts & well-wishes. And happy birthday to your queen as well!

Jennee said...

Great post. I like how you put it, when you roll your eyes when Americans say they've been to Europe and when you say you've been to the states no one asks where exactly. My favorite thing about living in Miami for several years that it felt like I was in another country but still had my American rights. I love the diversity. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Very interesting post! I think it's important for everyone to see people rather than groups, individuals rather than masses. We see a lot more that way :)

Cruella Collett said...

Karen - it never ceases to amaze me how many Americans I run into that have Norwegian ancestors! Always pleased to meet one, though :)

And yes, I think that it is important to keep certain aspects of ones own culture even if it is also important to adjust to the society one settles in. As you can see from the above, I am not a fan of black & white worldviews - why not go for the golden middle?

Jennee - Miami sounds like a great city. Another one on the already long list of places I'd like to visit!

Jemi - that is very true. This will sound cheesy, but I am going to quote a Disney song now...

"If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you'll learn things you never knew you never knew." (Pocahontas, Colors of the Wind)

There is so much out there we don't even know about, so what's the use of getting hung up on people being different from us if we can't embrace these differences, right? (Cheesy, but true!)

Jan Morrison said...

I know I wrote you a long thingy here and it isn't here? I'm so confused. oh well. I adore you! I can't wait to see the burrow in action together. I want to join that country - a merry band of word warriors!

Cruella Collett said...

Jan - oh, no! It appears that Blogger sometimes swallow certain comments, which makes me really sad, because it might look like I deleted it or something (which I would never do, unless it was VERY obvious spam - the only comments I have ever deleted were in incomprehensible Chinese and linked to porn sites...)

And who knows - the Burrow might be reviewing its visa regulations sometime in the future ;)

John Wiswell said...

Happy 4th (and now, 5th) to you, Norway. This was a lovely post. I agree that my home country is pretty diverse, with a populace that affirms and challenges every stereotype. I spent several hours of the holiday with the oddest crew of neighbors. The good of that diversity is something I certainly celebrate on the 4th, and try to appreciate more often than only annually.

Cruella Collett said...

Thank you, and right back at you, John! You make a good point - we should appreciate diversity all the time (and not just on holidays). In Norway we have a tendency to talk about freedom and inclusion on our Constitutional Day (May 17th), but we could do well in remembering the meaning of those lovely words on other occasions as well.

Amanda Sablan said...

This was a really nice post; I couldn't turn away. You actually know more about America than some people FROM and IN America! For all of this country's flaws, no one can deny that the freedoms we have set us apart in a good way from many other places in the world. You at least will not be executed for bad-mouthing Obama.

From what I've seen, many of us Americans are, I guess you could say, a "mixture of stereotypes." We can be like THIS one day, and like THAT another day. It all depends on a variety of factors. But I can definitely tell you that there is much more diversity in the big cities, where many of the "in-betweeners" and rebels feel most comfortable.

As for where I live down in the South? You cain't go nowhere without spottin' a redneck. Still, there are all these people that don't seem to belong in Georgia, yet they got here somehow...

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