“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:
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.
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.