Sunday, February 21, 2016
I'm proudly and unapologetically American...but it will never define me
Every time I think I've moved on to the higher road, I always end up back down in the depths, in that very same spot - on the receiving end of yet another lecture about why Sydney is so awesome and I'm an idiot for daring to think otherwise. It seems like once a week, I find myself arguing with one more Sydneysider because I've failed to give his city (and it seems to always be a him) the expected rave review.
Most recently, I defended my lukewarm Sydney stance to the friend of friends on Friday night. He responded with some valid points that were totally undermined by a recurring one that was anything but sound.
"That's so American."
That's so American? Wow. How insightful. How eloquent. How original. I've never heard that one before.
It's a hackneyed statement that reflects something I've known since my first trip to Australia five and a half years ago. Many Australians regard Americans as being generally inferior, good only for entertainment, which is why they have no problem consuming U.S. pop culture while not-so-secretly looking down on everything it represents.
I find anti-American sentiment among Aussies frustrating for a number of reasons. For one thing, it completely disregards the overlapping qualities of the Australian way and the American way: blind nationalism accompanied by a healthy dose of racism, provincialism and boganism (i.e., white-trash tendencies).
Of course, while I recognize these recurring themes in both American and Australian culture, I would never automatically assign any of them to someone I'd just met strictly because they were from one country or the other. That would be tantamount to a white person crying "That's so black" every time a black person did anything disagreeable.
And that brings us to my biggest problem with "That's so American." At its most pejorative (which, I suspect, is precisely what it's intended to be), it slants toward xenophobia and prejudgment, troubling qualities that live right next door to racism. I'm not putting "That's so American" on the same level as "No Asians" or "All black people are lazy/stupid/criminals," but there's a common thread of collectivism there.
The great irony of "That's so American" as a dismissive conversation device is that one can probably argue that it's so American to love Australians. Those negative feelings that some-to-many Australians seem to harbor about Americans are hardly mutual. Australian culture (like the Aussie accent and kangaroos) is practically mythologized in the United States. Furthermore, I've yet to meet an American who visited Sydney and didn't love it.
So how, then, can my own less-than-enthusiastic feelings about Sydney be construed as "so American"? Most or my fellow countrymen would probably disagree with me. Is it my reasons for coming to that conclusion, or my unwillingness not to accept that I will someday grow to love Sydney as much as everyone else does, despite the fact that one year and four months after moving here, I remain as lukewarm about the place as I was at the end of my first trip here in 2010?
The slavish devotion to this city by so many locals might actually be part of the reason why it's been so hard for me to fall for it. People make loving Sydney seem like a manifest destiny, an inalienable obligation. I've lived all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica, and I've never seen such systemic loyalty to one place.
It might actually be touching, if it didn't feel so borderline oppressive. Several acquaintances have suggested that it's human nature to be protective of the city in which you live. It's like the way we react when someone doesn't like our favorite song, or our favorite movie. We rush to defend the things that we think define us.
That's perfectly understandable. I get it. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating, especially when the reaction to my reaction is as insulting as "That's so American." To say such a thing and to do so repeatedly over the course of one conversation completely diminishes me and narrows me down to one thing, in much the same way that the question "Is it true what they say about black men?" completely diminishes me and narrows me down to one thing.
Yes, I might be American, but I'm far more complex than that. I'm also black, Caribbean and gay, qualities that have influenced me as much as, if not more than my national identity. I'm also an expat, someone who has lived nearly one-quarter of my life outside of the U.S. Being a member of multiple minority groups in the United States often made me feel as much of an outsider there as I have anywhere I've lived since leaving New York City.
Of course, anyone who would dismiss me and/or my ideas with "That's so American" hasn't actually considered any of this, for as soon as they know where I'm from, they've already sized me up. "That's so American" isn't an observation, though. It's simplistic criticism. The implication: Nothing an American says or feels is the result of independent thinking. We all carry guns and support Donald Trump. We're all stupid.
That's like saying that all Australian's talk like Crocodile Dundee, like lockout laws, and are homophobic because same-sex marriage is still illegal here (tsk tsk). It's so condescending, so trivializing, so judgmental, so lazy, so tone deaf.
Any well-traveled person who is qualified to offer any insight into the American psyche that wasn't acquired second-hand would realize that as a native of the Virgin Islands who never quite lost his West Indian accent, I don't even sound "American."
So to listen to me and say "That's so American" is to not listen to me at all.