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):
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.
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 ;)