The Ugly American Abroad

I spent last week at Agape Centro Ecumenico, an ecumenical centre in Northern Italy with roots in the post-World War II peace movement. I attended last summer’s conference series at Agape on Fundamentalism in Our Era, Body Theology, and The Ethics of Work and Voluntarism. Now I am a member of the planning committee for August 2011’s summit on Violence in Our Era: Transforming a Culture of Violence into a Culture of Just Peace.

This is not a blog posting on Agape Centro Ecumenico, on the upcoming conference, or on the rich and urgent topic of the intersections of violence and religion. This is a blog posting about something that happened on the final night of my week in Italy.

I flew in and out through Milan, and had an early flight out the last day. So I stayed overnight at the Zebra Hostel, a scrappy den for tourists and travelers who are generally under the age of 22. I am over the age of 30, so I did not find the 5am booming of the discothèque in the Zebra Hostel basement to be super-awesome. But I’m a grad student and the price was right, so there I was in my crappy little bunk on my last night in Italy, staring at the underside of the crappy top bunk all night, enduring the thrump and buzz of euro-techno music up through the floor, waiting for my alarm to bleat at 6am so I could head to the airport.

At 5:15am two American boys came into the bunkroom. They were drunk as hell, foul-mouthed, spewing hateful bile about people who don’t speak English. They made jokes about bashing foreigners’ heads in, declarations about the great land of America. A display of great ape chest-beating and spewlish drunkery; disgusting. One of them told the other he should read his Bible more, “Haven’t you read the Bible, dude?” They went on and on loudly and one of our bunkmates pleaded for them to be quiet, to turn off the overhead lamp. These guys became vicious, threatening. Their vitriol was a poison in the air; it hurt to hear them talk. I had never heard that kind of hot, unbraced hatred. I lied there tense as a hunting cat, ready to spring or defend myself if these wildebeests neared me.

I had taken the blanket and pillow from the empty neighboring bunk as it was cold and I didn’t see any luggage suggesting it was occupied. Bad luck for me, it was the bunk of one of these meatheads, and as they’d turned the overhead light on to the whole entire room they could see me underneath a double portion of bedclothes. One of the ogres fumed, “She took my f*cking sh*t! No one takes my f*cking sh*t! F*ck her!” et cetera. I started to get worried that they might get stupidly violent, as drunk as they were, so I sat up and played dumb and profusely apologized and returned his duvet.

Wouldn’t you know, this brute—he was a child, I could see, once he leaned his brawny, shiny face down to my bunk—this kid turned his immaculate ruddy smile on me and he was as sweet as pie. He said to me, “Oh, you speak English, you’re American! Hey, it’s totally okay! I don’t mind. I just talk to hear myself talk. Don’t worry about it. It’s so nice to hear English! You’re good, you’re good.”

He was…so nice. So apple pie. Strapping, milk-fed, farm-tanned, bright-eyed, agreeable and…a racist, vulgar, menacing, self-absorbed, shit-faced bigot. He invoked the Bible. I lay in my crappy bunk and I felt deep shame for my country and for my religion. No doubt these guys call themselves Christians; they might even be pretty hardcore and well-versed Christians. And here I am on State of Formation writing heartfelt, nuanced blogs about my journey of peacemaking with Jesus, ‘cause it’s all about love, man. And yet here I am with my red, white and blue passport always rushing to say, “But I’m not like them.” Those aren’t my kind of Americans; those aren’t my kind of Christians. When abroad, when inquired as to my nationality, I present my American-ness very, very apologetically.

I remember that I came to Agape last summer with deep shame for my country, for its meddling with the affairs of other countries, for its largesse and the searing embarrassment of the George W. Bush presidency. One night at Agape we had an International Night, and representatives from every country were asked to present aspects of their cultures to the rest of the participants. The Americans present, all of us feeling awkward about the prospect, joked that the American table would have hot dogs, beer, a tailgate party and bullies. That we would take things off of other countries’ tables and call them ours. But once International Night kicked off, I saw how proud everyone else was of their culture and country—the Ugandans, the Mexicans, the Germans, the Georgians, the Kenyans, the Koreans—and I felt a different kind of shame. For not being more diligent about discerning what is beautiful about America, if only that it is my home and the people I love most live there with me. I realized too that the world gains nothing from me diminishing myself. I must remain humble, but not self-deprecate—because after all I may be complicit to American largesse, but I do my best to be a good, constructive ambassador for our strange and divisive country.

My shame for being American surged back when I heard these monstrous American guys in the Zebra Hostel. Even more when one of them was so ingratiating to my American accent.

There was nothing I could do. They were both enormous and wasted, I was half-naked, it was 5:15am, three other bunks were trying to sleep, the savages were belligerent. Oh but I bet they’d never hurt a lady. God, I bet they might even call themselves feminists. So I lied there, tense, until my alarm finally went off at 6am. I must admit I let it run a little too loud and long when it went off. It was my passive-aggressive gift of disturbance to the barbarians in the neighboring bunk.

I guess I have the same approach to America as I do with religion. It’s fascinating, infuriating, terrifying, beautiful, and seems more often to cleave to is instead of ought-to. It’s not going anywhere. I have to find a way to work with it. I just won’t get on my knees for it. And maybe, next time an oxbrain like that dude at the Zebra Hostel in Milan gets close to me, I’ll have the courage to remind him that he, in fact, has traveled to a foreign country, and a critical mass of Europeans and enlightened fellow Americans would be delighted to see him subjected to any number of penalties detailed in his precious Bible. May I suggest starting with Judges 5:23-27?

*

Picture: Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him, circa 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Found on Wikimedia Commons. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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5 thoughts on “The Ugly American Abroad

  1. I was so glad that amidst the shame you felt at your fellow countrypersons you realized the importance of investigating and celebrating the good in America. As a visitor to North American shores I have something of an outsider’s perspective, and the sometimes extraordinary level of shame sophisticated Americans describe regarding their nation often surprises me.

    We must remember that many of the values which Americans frequently excoriate the USA for forgetting were themselves forged in the USA. The United States is and always has been a beacon for other nations, which offers its citizens a way of life unimaginable in much of the world, and which is worth defending and being proud of (while, of course, submitting it to reasonable critique).

    May I suggest some items for your cultural table at next year’s event, then? How about popular sovereignty, freedom of speech and the inalienable rights of humankind?

    P.S. Thank you for giving me the idea of doing a Google image search for “all-American boys” 😉

  2. Love and Peace, Jenn.

    You provide an interesting article. I thank you for sharing. I find that a widespread tendency within the InterFaith Movement in the United States is to contextualise religious pluralism and cultural diversity within the established framework of US patriotism. I understand the interest in emphasising solidarity with the general US community whilst encouraging this general US community to become more accepting of religious and cultural differences (and I understand how this interest may be even more vehemently maintained by more recently arrived ethnic communities and immigrants as a means of assimilating and prospering within US culture). However, I also think that rampant patriotism is counter-intuitive and counter-productive to the effort of encouraging genuine acceptance of religious pluralism and cultural diversity, particularly when the religions and cultures are respectively derived and practised beyond the US borders. I digress.

    I strongly identify with the sentiment that you write. In my case, particularly in traveling through Europe (over ten years ago), I am cognizant of the American reputation abroad (this is even before 9/11 and the more recent invasions). I also approach people with a certain intentional (perhaps overcompensating) humility. One time, I go to a café on the Champs-Elysees: I walk up to a waiter, introduce myself as a “stupid American,” and ask him if I am supposed to wait to be seated or whether I can simply sit down (all in my amateurish French). He smiles genuinely, and reassuredly he says, in English, that I am welcome to sit where I like. He and his colleagues are polite to me the entire time. This is very different from the reputation of French waiters that many American tourists share; but then again, I also consider myself different from many American tourists.

    One factor that distinguishes me is my skin colour. I think, at least previously, Europeans have a certain affinity towards people of African descent who live in the United States. During my study abroad experience in England and my travels in Europe, I receive a considerable amount of kindness, hospitality, and favouritism. It is some time since I am in Europe and I wonder whether this favouritism wanes on the part of Europeans, particularly considering Colin Powell, Condeleezza Rica, and Barack Obama. I wonder whether Earth is beginning to perceive people of African descent in the United States much like any other American, rather than an historically oppressed community.

    Nowadays, it is rather difficult to perceive myself as American. This is after graduating from law school and learning about the fundamental core of Americanism. Instead, I consider myself as a citizen of Earth and the Universe. In fact, a few years ago, in addition to other forms of political protest and dissidence, I even acquire a “World Passport” specifically to facilitate travel without a US passport. However, after years of protestation, I succumb again to the pragmatics of utilising a US passport (it is a difficult process of compromise). One lesson I learn in this process is that, rather than being a contrarian, an antagonist, a neigh-sayer, and a deconstructionist alone, it is beneficial to identify the morals, principles, teachings, and culture in which we do believe and to become a protagonist, a constructionist, and a progenerator. This, however, involves more responsibility and effort. I learn that, as much as we try to fight against the conventional law, the more we win, the more we actually become the law.

    So whilst the Earth continues to progress towards a unifying, pragmatic means of communal identification, it is beneficial, for those of us with such a mind, to simply be a shining example of humanity and all the allegiances that we respectively maintain whilst holding awareness, humility, respect, and even love and friendship for those who exist beyond such allegiances. Perhaps we learn more about what allegiance actually means.

    As for America, I make Peace with the past, I live in the present, and I look forward to the future, whilst dreaming throughout all three and even beyond the scope of time. I apologise for the harm and transgressions I cause. I forgive our American ancestors who historically cause harm and transgressions to us within the United States and outside of the United States. However, I am unable to forgive the intended harm and transgressions that we Americans, and indeed we people of Earth (and even we sentient beings of the Universe), intend to cause in the future. I believe America is in dire need of a Truth and Reconciliation process much like that of South Africa. There are numerous apologies and much forgiveness that need to occur. I believe that after centuries of technological advancement regarding the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of products and services, and more recently the availability of information, humanity is at the threshold of a new era where we experience social evolution and we learn how to share more effectively with each other this abundance of resources with which we are blessed, and learn how to live more harmoniously and seamlessly with our respective natural environments. This is something we can only achieve together in genuine cooperation. And that requires greater understanding, honesty, forgiveness, acceptance, and respect towards each other.

    Love and Peace,

    Peter

  3. I really enjoyed the perspective you offered–it reminded me of my feelings from being abroad as well. I remember people joking that I’d be better off putting a Canadian flag on my backpack if I wanted people to help me or talk to me.

    It was hard for me to accept that there were such negative stereotypes for Americans. When I lived in Japan, the US went to Iraq and I found myself being an apologist to my Japanese adult students who were curious why I would be from a country that went to war without just cause.

    It was in that situation that I was able to explain that all US citizens didn’t support our country’s policies and because of that acknowledgment, we were able to have genuine discussion about how we felt war was not the appropriate response at that time.

    I feel your frustration also in the loud American–nothing is more discouraging than seeing/hearing negative behaviors of others who supposedly represent “you” and the culture you’re from. I think in those times, it’s good to remember the humility that you mentioned and be that good, constructive ambassador–with all that’s going on around the world that the US is involved in, we certainly need more of that. Thanks for the thoughtful post and it sounds like a great position that you’re in

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