Top 5 Things That Make Me American

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That is totally mine.

“The more I travel, the more I realize how American I really am.”

This was Matt, leaning on a pole in a Madrid metro car, observing the raucous teenagers and stylishly dressed adults of an average Spanish evening. I nodded in sad agreement.

I’d like to say that traveling has made me more cultured, sophisticated and worldly. Maybe it has. But it’s also made me acutely aware of my incurable Americanness.

I didn’t really know what it meant to be an American before I started traveling; it’s hard to know if you have nothing to compare it to. I’ve now caught on to plenty of red-flag characteristics that will immediately identify one as hopelessly American. I’m guilty of many of them: holding my fork like a shovel, having obscenely straight teeth, living on my own before marriage, maintaining a staunch belief in the importance of a hearty breakfast. There’s also some attributes I don’t share with my countrymen: I don’t own a TV, I’m not overweight, and I can find Australia on a map. And I travel.

Being as though I travel, and have had the luxury to mingle with other cultures, I’ve been made aware of my grosser American offenses. Here’s the top 5 off my American rap sheet:

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From the human race, I'd like to extend my apologies, little fellow.

5. I walk fast.

I didn’t know this was an American characteristic until someone pointed it out to me. It makes perfect sense. We don’t stroll in America. Walking is not a leisure activity; it’s the lowliest form of transportation. We do it briskly to conceal our shame. Or else we construe it as exercise (as in, office workers powerwalking their lunch breaks away).

Our avoidance of walking manifests in everything from drive-thrus to elevators to Segways. Remember when MacDonald’s had step counters as a meal prize? Exactly.

4. I shake hands.

Now, this isn’t exclusively American; many cultures shake hands. But Americans place special importance on the handshake, measure relative grip and firmness to construct deep insights into another’s character and psyche. “I like that young man; he’s got a good handshake.” And I was just in Europe, where nothing announces your Americanness like jabbing someone in the chest with your outstretched hand as they lean in for a check kiss. (Sorry, Pierre, hope that doesn’t bruise.)

3. I call myself American.

America isn’t a country, it’s a continent. Two continents, actually. Filled with many, many countries. In our utterly naive narcissism, we seem to forget this (read: title of this post). Numerous travels through Latin America have taught me to say that I’m from “Estados Unidos,” not “America.” But I still have trouble pronouncing “Estadounidense,” which basically means United-States-ian. Doesn’t flow off the tongue as easily, but it is more correct.

2. I don’t speak another language.

I mean, really. It’s just ridiculous at this point.

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And the rockets red glare...

1. I have a deep and abiding love of peanut butter.

Protein, healthy fat, delicious taste: the American love affair with the peanut culminates when we grind it, jar it and spread it on stuff. Or eat it by the spoonful.

Trying to find peanut butter outside of the United States is a depressing, frustrating and often futile effort. If you can find a jar, on a lonesome dusty shelf hidden behind the Nutella and marmalades, it’s bound to be sugared to hell, rife with hydrogenated oils and staggeringly expensive. I’m not sure why the rest of the world is sleeping on the PB tip; with great taste, nutritional value and versatility, they’re really missing out.

There’s plenty of things I could change about myself to become more international, a “citizen of the world” as the obnoxious call it. Sure, I could learn 7 languages, use military time and metrics, and school myself in the finer points of kissing cheeks. I could disregard my reverence for the orderliness of lines, become a football fan (not American football, silly), even slow my roll to a smooth swagger. But I will never give up my passionate fervor for peanut butter.

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15 Responses to “Top 5 Things That Make Me American”


  1. 1 Lesley October 29, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    You’re so right on the walking fast! And the peanut butter. I live in Mexico City, where everyone strolls at a leisurely pace, and I’ve only been able to find peanut butter in these tiny two-cup jars. Plus it’s full of corn syrup and who knows what else. (Thinking I may just have to make my own.) I would add “Ruled by Time” to your list. Every American I know thinks it’s highly important to show up right at the appointed hour. Where does this come from and what does it say about us?

    • 2 laurenquinn October 29, 2009 at 10:02 pm

      You’re right–punctuality is way up there. It’s a Pandora’s Box, really, when you get going.

      Good luck with peanut butter. Vegetarian/healthy food markets tend to be the best bets…

  2. 3 Gray October 30, 2009 at 12:32 am

    You are right about our attention to time and our pace. It’s as if we have a constant sense of running out of time. Here’s another one: I remember when I went to England many years ago (my first international trip as an adult), I was a little annoyed about all the restaurants that only had 2 or 3 tables in them–so you had to stand while you ate or share with strangers–and the B&Bs that made 11 rooms share 1 bathroom, etc. It had to be pointed out to me that London is such an old city and has such a huge population that resources such as space and water are limited. Coming from such a young country as the US, where we still have relatively large swaths of land and act as though there are limitless supplies of everything, I wasn’t used to that “lack”. It was eye-opening.

    • 4 laurenquinn October 30, 2009 at 12:36 am

      Space–another good one! We’re spoiled with space in the United States. Even with our big cars, big houses and wide streets, we can’t fill it all.

  3. 5 Benjamin October 30, 2009 at 1:30 am

    I only called myself “United States-ian” all the way through Thailand, and it seemed to annoy the Aussies (I don’t think a single Thai person ever asked where I was from) even more than our arrogance at calling ourselves “American”. I can see why the distinction would be more important when you’re still in one of the Americas, though.

  4. 6 peregrina feminina November 3, 2009 at 7:25 am

    I don’t get the peanut butter thing! Every time I travel, I come across Americans who are jonesing for peanut butter and can’t find it. What is the appeal? Why not just eat peanuts? I very rarely like peanut butter so I guess I’m not a true American 😉

    I noticed that when I try to be PC and say I’m from the United States, a lot of people are confused until I say that I’m from America. But I’ve noticed the best thing to say is, “I’m from California.” People love that around the world… a cab driver once broke out into “California Love” when I told him that.

    • 7 laurenquinn November 3, 2009 at 7:34 am

      Peanut butter is spreadable, so you can put it on stuff. And it’s damn delicious. I dunno, there’s some kind of magic that happens when you grind up the peanut…

      I totally got the confused reaction to “United States” in Morocco–blank look, long pause, then: “Oh, America!” California’s pretty good too. San Francisco’s even better!

      I would love to hear a cab driver bust out in “California Love.”

  5. 8 Marcus Strapp November 3, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Peanut, butter! Yet another import from the good ole USofA as appealing as nuclear waste 😉

    I’m only kidding folks, my daughter (deep sigh) loves the retched stuff.

    I once strolled, yes strolled, no power walking for me, through the theatre district in New York (I believe you call it Broadway?) when I happened upon one of your Skyscrapers (anything over 3 floors is a SkyScraper to a Cambridge UK dwelling lad). Draped down one side of the building was an enormous picture of a Teletubby.

    My first thought was Oh No. My second was, hmm, call it fair trade.

    Eh oh, Marcus Strapp

  6. 9 Emily @ Maiden Voyage November 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    How funny! I totally know what you mean. Never knew how American I was until I went to Europe. The one thing I keep noticing as a major difference is the looooooong meals they have over there. In Italy this summer, I marveled at how long people sat at tables and talked. Nobody was hurrying us out of there, trying to clean up tables, push us to buy more stuff — they let us just sit. Everyone just sat. The servers didn’t bring our bills; we had to ask them for it whenever we were ready. We Americans rush through everything (as you noted, walking is one of them!) — especially meals. We don’t savor food enough. We scarf it down on the go and move on to the next activity. They really value a long, leisurely meal. We have a lot to learn from them!

  7. 10 Candice November 4, 2009 at 3:05 am

    When teaching nationalities, I try to open the children’s minds with the fact that we do not have a way to say “estadounidense” in English. An easier term to use, and also correct (thought it includes Canada) is to say that you’re “norte americano.” Also, I think we are to peanut butter as the Australians are to Vegemite. It’s disgusting stuff but I’ve met more than one who take it traveling for a taste of home.

  8. 12 John Klein November 4, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Being on time and thinking everyone else should be on time is definitely an American thing.

    Don’t forget the LUST for Peete’s coffee that many Americans can’t kick.

    Americans also have really big shoes, too.

    Cleanliness, neatness, orderliness – all American (I’ve traveled in India a lot,so…..)

    • 13 laurenquinn November 4, 2009 at 7:49 am

      All true! You can really go on forever with this, once you get started… (I’ve recently switched from Peet’s to Blue Bottle, so I’m exempt from that one!)

  9. 14 A Wannabe Travelwriter November 30, 2009 at 8:59 am

    You switched from Peets Coffee (my personal fav) to the Blue Bottle? As in Bombay Sapphire gin(another personal fav).

    The difference being that I typically drink one in the A.M. and the other in the P.M. (but only as a guideline).

    I have found I don’t have to differentiate between the U.S. vs. America as my home. I just say California, which usually results in a comment about our Governator.

    Another unfortunate American–I mean U.S.–trait is talking too loud.

  10. 15 Scarlett December 3, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I’m Canadian, but I had to say something about the peanut butter – I missed it like crazy when I was in Europe too! 9 months without peanut butter… I’m home in two days and for sure I’m gonna load up before I head to Asia, but I know in Hong Kong you can get peanut butter so I’m good 🙂
    And as a Canadian, we can’t imagine calling you guys anything but American, even though the term would loosely mean it inculdes us as well…


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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