Having just celebrated the USA’s 243rd birthday, combined with the fact I just finished two weeks in Europe, I have been thinking much about what makes my country of birth great. Our constitution is pretty amazing, for sure. The freedoms it promises I often take for granted and explaining differences abroad to the kids made me feel proud. The diversity we have also makes me smile, especially when I consider the bulk of my life was spent in Southern California where dozens of countries were represented with my neighbors alone. And, as much as I love pasta, it’s nice that within 20 minutes of my home I can eat at least 6 different ethnic meals. The list could go on and on.
However, being abroad also made me see outside of my “normal” in many different ways. Throughout my life, but most especially in the last few years, living in the US has started to expose our collective need to separate, to divide while also highlighting a patriotism that seems like a stranger to me. In sometimes tacit fashion, the definition for a “true American” has become blurred to me. We have all seen the viral videos of white Americans confronting others who are not speaking English (here is one such incident but there are many, many more https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/412647-woman-demands-to-see-passports-of-spanish-speaking-family-at). Many of us are either decrying the “dangerous people storming our borders”, or are watching in pain as hundreds of children are being held for weeks at a time without basic necessities such as water, toothbrushes, and compassion. But that is another post in itself.
In our country, there is this “rule” that you must speak English to be truly American, at least it feels that way. While no language has been designated as official for this country, most agree that English is needed for success in this land. In the 1980’s, a push was made to make English the official language, originally so that federal funds could be allocated for language classes for immigrants so that they’d have an easier time getting work and establishing themselves in American society. Shortly thereafter, it was morphed from that to a way to “keep America great” but assuring that English (aka “white Americans”) would retain its place in this country. That push was influenced by Nationalists (some of the racist bent, but not all). It went from a way to help immigrants to succeed to forcing immigrants to turn their backs on their heritage and, yes, even give room for English-speaking Americans to confront and belittle anyone who dared to speak another language on our sacred soil. Had I read that information a few years ago, I’d have scoffed. But the reality is, today that is abundantly true.
So it is with great disappointment that I’d like to share that this American Ethos is quite literally BS. Not only because I believe our country was meant to be an amazing experiment in democracy and DIVERSITY, but because it is extremely hypocritical. In the last two weeks, I have been to Paris, Florence, Pompeii, Positano, and Rome. THE MAJORITY of every person I interacted with spoke at least some English. Deana and I tend to avoid tourist stops when shopping and eating, and we were often off the “beaten path”. You’d think that we’d encounter people who did not speak English. We were surprised. Even years ago in a small town about 8 hours from Moscow, we met many people who could converse with us in English. Our own ability to speak the local language recently and in Russia was horrible, at best.
I’ve even met some people at my work’s Buenos Aires location that have never been to England or the USA who speak English. When I am there, I try my best to speak Spanish, but let’s be real – had the tables been turned and I moved there to work, I am confident that if I spoke to my family in English I would not be confronted or ridiculed.
Some of you reading this might be thinking, “well, the USA is important so it makes sense that the world speaks our language.” I don’t disagree with you. But what I AM trying to say is, we are a lazy bunch. Somehow we’ve moved from patriotism to Nationalism. Nationalism is ” identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” In doing so, we want everyone to bow to us (or our language, our preferences, our definition of anything) while we also expect to be accepted “as is” when we enter into other nations. We don’t put our own requirements on ourselves and hold onto our language of birth in arrogance and maybe even defiance. We want to say we are better than others because of where we were born while paying big bucks to visit other countries for vacation. We often don’t even invest much of our time to learn other languages and just expect them to be able to meet our needs on our terms when we are there.
This was a humbling lesson to experience in real time, to discuss with our youngest kids, and to remember that all humans have a right to live in this world. I am a Proud American, but that does not mean pride is exclusive to me and mine. We are better than that people!