friendly but possibly fake

IMG_8582I moved to Aruba to learn about other cultures, so it’s odd to me that I’ve learned a good deal about my own culture since leaving it all behind. I often find myself identifying in a strange and unexpected way with my American status. Where are you from is the first question people ask here. Telling people I am American is a weird thing to have to say all the time because it’s not really anything I ever said much before. Most of the time I just introduce myself as Texan. I’ve discovered that there are very few Americans actually living in Aruba. There are, however, plenty of American tourists who flock here, week after week. I see them all over the place. They disembark from a huge bus in a giant mob on these crazy tours that go all over the island. They randomly stop to go have a drink during happy hour at a local bar or feed the donkeys for 15 minutes at the Donkey Sanctuary. Then they zoom off to the next location. It’s a bit of jolt when they arrive because they basically travel in an inebriated mass, and you are forced to confront your own culture as a drunk crowd that could easily fill one side of a small stadium, making every stereotype about Americans seem overly exaggerated. Inevitably, my friends and I always laugh and strike up conversations about how others view Americans when we see the bus. Here are a few things I have learned about what others think of Americans, not only from these conversations, but also living as an alien in another culture and country.

1. Americans are loud mouths– I had read before moving overseas about the obnoxious American tourist, but nothing prepares you for routine encounters with this particular breed through the lens of living life in another country. Whether it is waiting in line for 3 hours through customs at the airport, or pushing my cart down the grocery store aisle, there is no denying the fact that Americans are extremely loud. For the longest time, I would just put my head in my hands, completely mortified while dining out with friends as we listened to Americans destroy the ambiance with their boisterous conversation a few tables over. Nowadays, after going months without any kind of live connection to my land and people, I find myself wanting to talk to these tourists when I see them. I think to myself, there are my people, wouldn’t it be nice to say hello. Then I realize after sitting next to them for a while, why bother? I’ve already heard amplified answers to anything I may have wanted to know as they hoot, howl, and holler clear across the room, broadcasting every detail of their life story to everyone around them.

2. We are friendly, but also possibly fake – This is the one I hear the most. It’s a difficult one for me to understand. I am an animated version of this stereotype since I hail from the friendly state of Texas. I am told again and again that Americans are extremely polite and welcoming. We are complimented often by people from all over for this trait. Mostly, it is a good thing, but people also explain to me that there is a specific American cadence in our tone and an overuse of positive adjectives that leave other cultures suspicious of our motives. It’s as if we are all television talk show hosts. Apparently, people from other countries detect an upward inflection at the end of our words and sentences. That and the actual English words we choose to use are also somewhat suspect, words like great and awesome. Is everything really that great and awesome? Aren’t some things just good or maybe only alright? People, mostly Europeans, describe this especially with first encounters. It is seen as being a bit superficial, as if we aren’t really honest about what is happening inside, maybe kind of like we are always smiling for the camera. Like is another word we overuse. I’ve used it twice in the last several sentences.

3. We are poorly traveled – I can trace my family history back to every major epoch in American history.  The Lewis name is derived from Welsh ancestors who arrived in the mid 17th century. My father’s great grandfather married a woman whose family can be traced back to some of the first settlers at Jamestown. My great great great grandfather was orphaned after losing his Cherokee parents on the Trail of Tears. Then there were the French Huguenots on my mother’s side who fled Normandy and moved to North Carolina at the turn of the 18th century. My maternal grandmother’s Czech ancestors came with the late 19th century wave of Eastern European immigrants; they arrived penniless and built a fortune in ironworks. These are compelling, epic stories of brave men and women leaving everything they knew behind to take the journey of a lifetime, some voluntarily and others with no other choice. But it seems that our ancestors were the first and last adventure seekers and trailblazers; their descendants are far too comfortable living out sedentary lives within America’s borders, or even only one American state. Maybe it is the cost of travel, or, perhaps, it’s the shear size of the nation and expanse of the land from sea to sea. Maybe Americans simply think the best places to visit are all in the United States. Who knows? If we lived in a smaller country, maybe we would be more likely to cross international boundaries. Whatever the reason, most people believe Americans do not travel enough. They believe Americans do not really know or want to learn about the rest of the world.

4. English is our only language – This one is obvious once you leave the United States. Everyone I meet in Aruba speaks several languages. I routinely receive language instruction from the gas station attendant where I fill up the tank in my Hyundai. Every week I throw out a new word and he can give me the translation in Spanish, Papiamento and Dutch. I meet people like him all around this place. I’m waiting in line at the grocery store to check out and the cashier speaks to the family in front of me in Dutch, then she greets me in English, and I listen while bagging my groceries as she talks to the couple behind me in Papiamento. As Americans, we aren’t really forced to learn another language because so many people speak English. There is something rather sad and limiting about only experiencing the world through one language. There is so much joy to be felt when discovering a new word for something you have no translation for in your native tongue. Words work a little bit like magic that way. I may never master French, which was the first language I ever studied. But at least I know I can buy a train ticket in Italy and talk my way through a mordida when driving across the country of Mexico. One important thing I can do abroad is to continue to study and practice using another language everyday, mostly because It is a way of building connections and showing love and respect for other cultures.

5. We sleep with a gun under our pillow – Here is another stereotype I have to contend with all the times as a Texan. I’ve never owned a gun, nor do I ever want to own a gun. Actually, I’ve never felt safer than I have these last 9 months living in Aruba even though there is a makeshift outdoor bar around the corner from my front porch where men from all over the neighborhood start drinking everyday at 2 PM. They have a couple of chairs, a sofa, a pull-a-part car, and a wrecked boat, littering the ground all around are countless bottles of beer and rum. During the evenings my neighbor across the way routinely gesticulates up at the night sky and screams at the canopy of stars above. Do I feel my life is in danger? Should I worry for my safety? No, not at all, I sleep easier at night knowing my chances of getting shot tomorrow have significantly decreased since leaving my country. Close friends at home have been held up at gun point. My family members have been shot while walking to their car after dinner out on the town. They were all lucky to make it out alive. As far as I am concerned, the gun violence at home is rampant and evident even from where I sit perched on this rock far away. Recently, I was the only American in a jam packed room waiting to pay my my electric bill at Elmar while CNN covered breaking news of another mass shooting in the United States. I looked around the room at all the Aruban faces watching the screen and thought to myself: People around the world must think we are nuts.

6. Americans have lost their minds – Actually, people around the world do think we are nuts. How else could a xenophobic, misogynist become a serious contender for the White House? I remember a friend’s comment before I left last summer. “Aren’t you so relieved to be leaving the country before this circus gets started?” They were just setting up the tents at that point. I thought I could  bury my head in the sand and by the time I had cable TV (a 3 month waiting period in Aruba) America would come to its senses. When cable was finally connected in January, he was still there on the screen pointing his finger and shouting out loud about his penis size across my living room during a debate. I thought to myself – Eek, what did he just say? How is this happening? What did we do to deserve this? My friend was spot on with her remark. Yes, I was happy to escape the circus, but that circus has now turned into a terrifying carnival, the kind with distorted mirrors and scary clowns and creepy music, the kind where freak shows are still permissible. People around the world are either pointing and laughing or recoiling in terror at the freak show. Mostly, they are just asking – What are they thinking? 

7. Everything is big – I hear this one all the time, about as often as I hear overly-friendly.  There is an impression that everything in America is bigger. The size of the country is big. American patriotism is super sized. Not only do they love their country, Americans also really love themselves because I often hear about big American egos. The stores they shop in are colossal warehouses filled with an endless supply of tons of stuff to buy in bulk. They are voracious consumers; their appetite can never be satisfied. We consume things constantly, especially food and beverages in supersize quantities. They like to eat big burgers and steaks and pizzas and hot dogs and wash it all down with extra large sodas. They drive big trucks, especially big white Doge Ram pickup trucks. Americans are physically big in size and stature and carry around extra pounds of fat. The list goes on. Some big descriptions are positive. Americans are big tippers and give their money generously to charity. But then they can’t understand why we would give away our money.

8.Fend for yourself – There is this glorified American wild west myth of horses and cowboys that still exists to this day. Our American landscape is romanticized by the rest of the world. I remember hearing that one back in 1989 during my first trip to Paris. “Do you ride horses?” I was asked again and again. We were just kids at the time, so we answered, “Sure, we ride horses to school everyday and wear cowboy boots most days as well.” It was easier to play along. This wild west story lends itself well to the idealism of American ruggedness and individualism. There is this notion that the untamed landscape shaped the American identity. We are seen by others as fiercely independent. You fend for yourself in America. Enter at your own risk and be sure to take some risks along the way, or you may never get ahead. Hopefully, it all works out for you because if it doesn’t, well – it’s the wild west and you’re on your own.

Is any of this true? Who knows? Maybe some of it is true of some but not everyone. Maybe some of it is true in some places but not everywhere. Maybe Americans just need to travel more so others can see how diverse we are as people. People from other countries need to visit America and see how diverse the land is as well. I’m doing my best living on this multicultural island to tell others what a great place The United States is to visit. I make suggestions all the time. I usually throw out something from this list:

Drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. Spend a week in San Francisco. Camp in the Redwoods. Drive the sand dunes in Oregon. Visit Fisherman’s Wharf in Seattle. Go to Mesa Verde and climb inside ruins built by ancient Puebloan people. Hike Moab. Ski Taos. Say a prayer for someone you love inside Chimayo. Spelunk Carlsbad Caverns. Drive the River Road from Presidio to Lajitas. See the mystery lights in Marfa.  Swim Hamilton Pool outside of Austin. Eat tacos and then eat more tacos. Eat some enchiladas too. Smother them in chile. Snowshoe Minnesota. Go to a juke joint in St. Louis. Visit Chicago. Eat beignets in New Orleans. Drive east across the south to the Carolinas and sample comfort food, Southern style. Spend an entire day inside a museum in Washington D.C. Stay a summer in Brooklyn and go get lost in Manhattan everyday.

I tell them this is the America I want to share with you. These are only some of my favorite places. Go see for yourself. It truly is a great country. The people really are very warm and welcoming. It’s authentic. It’s real. You will make many new friends. And a road trip is the best way to travel.

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