Ten things I learned about America by leaving it, part one

When you leave your home country, you become even more patriotic.’ A native Finn who had moved to Sweden gave me this profound maxim. I find it to be largely true, but it only tells part of the story. After you leave your home country, something else happens to you besides an increase in patriotism. You learn more about your homeland, more of its good points and more of its bad points. You learn how to criticise it, or praise it, from a wider base of experiences. So after eight years outside of America, here are some things I have learned about it by viewing it from a distance.

10) Americans aren’t stupid; they are myopic.

There is a world-wide perception that Americans are idiots. This is a stereotype bolstered by thousands of anecdotes. Everyone has seen the Youtube videos or Facebook screenshots of Americans who can’t find Canada on a map, or think kangaroos live in Austria, or believe London is a country.

When I lived there I thought Americans were pretty dumb, too. But now I think it is more complex. Americans are myopic. When it comes to the world, Americans are more interested in America than anything else. They are near-sighted, or, if you want to be generous, you can say they are inward-looking. Where kangaroos come from is simply less important to some of them.

9) Americans are fat.

Yes. Yes, you are. And you’re not just fat. You are morbidly obese. I only get into the States once a year or every other year, and it is always a shock to walk off the plane and see the huge mountains of flesh waddling around the airport. Americans aren’t stupid (see point #10), and they know they are dangerously overweight, but if you see it every day it begins to be normal and you don’t notice it anymore.

I can assure you this is not normal, America, and you should notice it. The rest of the world isn’t like this. Whole generations of people around the globe are growing up thinking those immortal lyrics of AC/DC – ‘knockin’ me out with those American thighs’ – means something completely different. And don’t try to blame it on genetics or how busy you are. Don’t try to pretend anyone under 140 pounds is promoting an ‘unhealthy body image’ and you have been enlightened to the true beauty of enormous fat rolls. That’s rubbish, and you know it.

I went shopping in America last summer and bought a size medium shirt. I’ve worn medium T-shirts since I was about fourteen years old, so I never try them on. But when I finally slipped it over my head it was gigantic. I brought it to Finland and compared it to the sizes here. An American ‘medium’ is a European ‘extra large.’ It wasn’t this way eight years ago, when an American medium fit me fine. So much has changed over the past decade that now the new normal is morbidly obese.

8) Extreme religious piety causes problems as well as solves them.

Overall, I think piety is a good thing. For individuals, it can offer hope and solace in a world where human life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes described it. The theory is religion also benefits society because people will be good during life so they won’t go to hell when they die. However, judging from America’s violent crime rate this theory might need a re-think.

Despite its good points, religiosity can cause problems. One of the reasons many Europeans think Americans are imbeciles is that so many people in the States believe in Creationism, despite the centuries of accumulated scientific proof to the contrary. Also, some Americans don’t believe in changing their behaviour to solve environmental problems because of pseudo-religious reasons: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ There are faith issues at work that secularists have difficulty comprehending.

But to be honest, what bothers me most about religious fundamentalism in America is the promotion of hatred towards particular groups. In the past century we’ve seen industrial-scale mass murder and genocide committed in the name of racism, patriotism, class warfare and the simple consolidation of power. Now we are seeing the potential for religion-induced genocide in Africa. A great religious demagogue who plunges the world into another Holocaust could just as easily come from America as anywhere else, I think, although I hope I don’t live to see it.

7) American influence is different than you might expect.

When you live in America, you believe the main aspect of American influence around the world is hard power. You think of things like military might, diplomatic skill, and business muscle. Yes, America has that, certainly, but hard American power is quite a bit less than the average US citizen realises. Think about it: America’s military still hasn’t been able to root out the Taliban, even after more than a decade of trying. America’s diplomats couldn’t stop India or Pakistan or North Korea from getting nuclear weapons, and I strongly suspect they will fail with Iran, too. When it comes to business, most growing companies are much more interested in breaking into China than the oversaturated, slow-growing US.

But the soft power of America is quite a bit more than the average American might realise. American universities have educated some 300 current or former world leaders, according to the State Department. American culture and methods and ideas are widespread.

Then there is the language. Of course the UK and other Commonwealth countries have contributed to this, but the growth of English as the global lingua franca is largely due to the US in the latter half of the 20th Century. As an example of how it has become so important, the main Finnish university has decided to conduct all its graduate business programs in the English language. But, to put it bluntly, America is not that important to the Finnish economy. Finland trades more with the Netherlands than America. So the fact that they chose English as their language of instruction should tell you something.

6) The whole world isn’t watching.

In 1968, protestors at the Democratic convention chanted ‘The whole world is watching.’ Before big media events such as the Superbowl or Daytona 500 breathless American commentators will remind the audience that billions of people around the world are tuning in. No, they aren’t.

It is true that the world pays more attention to America than America does to the world, but the level of this is frequently overstated. Worldwide, over twice as many people watch Formula One than NASCAR and IndyCar combined. I won’t even get into football, or soccer.

The day after the Superbowl people on the streets of London, Nairobi or Shanghai are not excitedly talking about the game. In many European newspapers it is reported in a couple of lines in the ‘Other Sports’ section, next to the results from some horse race in Dubai or swimming championship in Australia. So just because something is important to America doesn’t mean it is important to the rest of the world.

Next up: hating America, the benefits of workoholism, and the land of opportunity.

One comment on “Ten things I learned about America by leaving it, part one
  1. Mark says:

    Well said! The ego-centric view of the world is hard to break down. But as America slides further back in education and standard of living, this is likely to very slowly change, but it will take generations.

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