Saving National Face Abroad

One of the cultural quirks of being an American is that we are not supposed to criticize anything associated with the republic for which we stand when we are abroad or when speaking to a non-American.  Let’s flash back to 2003 when the Iraq War was getting geared up and one of my favorite bands of all time had a performance in London.  Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, got up in front of the audience and said that she was ashamed that “the president of the United States came from Texas.”  If you lived in the US when this happened, then you probably remember the firestorm.  I lived in South Carolina, where the Dixie Chicks’ first concert took place after Maines’ statement.  People found all kinds of ways creative ways to express their displeasure.  The usual death threats were embellished with a ceremonial burning of the band’s CDs outside of the concert venue.  Then after those were incinerated, someone brought more CDs and a steamroller with which to crush them.  The band gave a proper, half-hearted apology.  Later, they made a music video saying sorry not sorry.  That was pretty much their last hoorah and then the band sort of disappeared.

I was a teenager when the Dixie Chicks scandal broke.  At that point I learned that it is your patriotic duty to uplift your country’s image and not say anything to sully it.  I had been living in the South for several years, and had strong views that could not be swayed by the local populous.  So, the dude with the steamroller didn’t have an impact on me.  It was the fact that the national news outlets with frowning reporters, family members, and people whom I considered to be apolitical or left of center were complaining about the statement.  Message received: Be careful of what you say when you’re abroad.

Flash forward a decade and cross the Atlantic ocean to Ireland, where I am being asked very pointed questions about my country:

“Is the United States dangerous?”

This question came up at the kitchen table with my English-learning roommates, a Chilean couple with Spanish residency.  We had been having a surprisingly in-depth conversation (given our language barrier) about anthropology, sociology, and global politics. Then, suddenly they wanted to know if the United States is as it appears on the news.  My rushed answer was, “Of course not!  That’s just the sensationalism of the media.”

“What about the guns,” they asked, “are they in every high school?  Do you teach all of your kids how to shoot? Why do you allow guns to be so freely sold?”  I continued to explain that high schools generally aren’t war zones; it’s not some sort of tradition to teach every American child how to handle a firearm; and not everyone is packing heat.  They continued: “Okay, but what about the police? Are the police scary? What about Ferguson?”  I choked on my soda.  What was I supposed to say?  As much as I wanted to say a million things (or as much as I could in Spanglish) about inequality, police brutality, and the need for social justice, I changed the subject.  It was neither the time nor the place.

The next day, I was walking around Dublin when a young Irish woman working for an international human rights organization stopped me to talk about joining.  But before she got into the topic of a human rights atrocity happening in a faraway place, she just out of the blue told me all sorts of issues happening in Ireland.  She spoke of widespread youth unemployment, government corruption, and the unpopularity of a proposed water tax.  While I was interested in what she had to say, I was more in shock that she was giving this information to me, a foreigner, so readily.  Later in the day, I witnessed a protest over the water tax, and people stopped to tell me what it meant and why it was important.

And this seems to be trend.  The people who I have met in Dublin are very open about the problems that Ireland suffers from as a country.  There is no attempt to sweep key facts under the rug to save face.  They have also been open about pointing out the problems that they see with my country.  At first, my reaction was to go, “no, wait, it’s not what you think” because I have basically been hardwired to do so.  But there’s something refreshing and useful in exchanging thoughts about where each other’s countries have room for improvement and where they are doing a good job.  It’s like an international peer review.

By now, I’ve given honest opinions about racism, sexism, politics, and the troubled history of the United States.  I’ve even touched a little on that tricky topic of police.  But I still feel like I have to hold back, lest I be a bad American.  If you’re an American who travels or lives abroad, do you ever feel like you have to verbally defend your country?  Even when what the other non-American person is saying is kind of true?  Do you feel like some countries are more open and honest than others?

One thought on “Saving National Face Abroad

  1. I deal with this dilemma every day. I want people to know that Americans aren’t just ignorant imperialist who shoot people in schools and I want people to understand those stereotypes are just as ridiculous as the ones Americans have of foreigners but at the same time I wanna be able to discuss these issues honestly and tell people how it is. It’s a difficult line to tread.

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