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Realizing an American identity while abroad

Published: August 31, 2012
Section: Opinions


During an interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates commentated that, “country is sort of like family.” That statement rings true. No matter what your reaction is to American culture, it has an impact on your values and personality, even if it escapes your notice.

I have never been a patriotic person. An American flag was never hung up in my room; the Fourth of July was never my favorite holiday. Once I became politically aware, it seemed like I always had a bone to pick with the good ole US of A.

It wasn’t until I left the country for my first abroad adventure, that I began to realize the influence that America had on me. When I was in Israel in high school, while walking around Jerusalem, I often felt like I had a flaming arrow that hung over my head and said “American.” From my Americanized Hebrew to my occasionally culturally inappropriate behavior, I felt my identity distinctly and regretfully. While I missed the Ben & Jerry’s and the instant access to Internet and cable, I didn’t mind taking a sabbatical from American life and experiencing a new culture. While at home I would have been sick of the political diatribe, with joy I watched President Obama during the 2008 election from a hang-out shack on the kibbutz on which I lived and rejoiced in the positive changes coming for America.

I returned home to America right as the Gaza War was starting in Israel. Even though I never felt a lick of danger or fear when I lived outside of Jerusalem, I was glad to return home and not have to deal with the pressure and stress of living in a country that often seemed to be on the brink of something major and treacherous. Most of the time living here is easy. Our country does not require something from its citizens every day besides following the laws. For a middle-class kid in America, life is carefree, and I came to appreciate how amazing and rare that is in most parts of the world.

When I returned to Israel after high school, I knew Israel a little better, but still couldn’t escape my American identity. Salespeople and waiters would tell me to “just speak English, please. It is much easier” every time I tried my Hebrew out in public. Like most journeying to Israel, I had space problems; I was uncomfortable being bumped, shoved, and pushed all the time; and I missed the streets of Charlotte where everyone left plenty of room for passing on the sidewalk.

When I got to London, I felt like I had a greater shot at fitting in. Sure, my English sounded a little different, but it was English all the same. I adjusted fairly well to the afternoon tea but the accent continued to trip me up. Every time a British person spoke, I expected to be able to understand all the words that came out of their mouths, but even after three and a half months I was caught off guard when someone spoke to me on the street. In some ways, it was easier to fit in while in London because it was such a melting pot of culture. There were many Americans in London, but the ones to whom I spoke told only of the dedication, time and difficulty it took to fit in once they moved to the city.

Since I am not European, I can’t speak to how they feel during their adventures when they travel out of their state, but I do feel as though being American gives you a specific identity, one that is not necessarily translatable to other cultures and places. When you are in America you are so entrenched in your daily life—the political rhetoric that poisons our radios and TVs, the mundane tasks that fill up the spaces in our day—that you forget that you actually like the place. It took leaving the country for me to be appreciative of what it has to offer, both in a theoretical sense and in my day-to-day life.

Maybe the saying “distance make the heart grow fonder” is true when applied to patriotism and not just romantic entanglements.