Social Impact Design

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"The United States is my alcoholic brother". An expats thoughts on his homeland and a volunteers review

It’s a little long, but please give it a read! And if you really have some time to kill, read the comments, which are just as informative as the article. This weeks post is a response/ reflection of the article above. Disclaimer: I do not agree with all of what he says (I especially disagree with #5)

This is a great article that I think many Peace Corps Volunteers and expats can sympathize with. The author is reacting to his introspective assessment of his motherland, where he discovers that his rose colored glasses of patriotism and “We’re number 1!” mentality were tainted by the inundation of our own self-loving, fear mongering media. He realizes that we have become narrow-minded because we are so isolated from outside viewpoints (media, language, ideas).  He states “…we don’t really get perspective on what’s close to us until we spend time away from it.”

To me, this is the real meaning of the Peace Corp’s Goal #3: To share with your fellow Americans what you have seen and learned about the world outside of the 50 states; to bring back AND SHARE your changed perspective. Sharing the food, dance, music and photos from vacation hot spots are great, but any tourist can do that.

From my one-week back home last August, I was able to glimpse the oncoming frustration of reverse-culture shock. I’m not talking about strangers not staring at you anymore (wait, you don’t want to take a photo with me?), or old women not giving you a bag full of bananas or avocado just because you visited their house.  I’m talking about how tough it is to get people to understand your new world view, because they haven't had the chance to step outside of the bubble themselves. Sometimes you just want to shake someone saying WHY DONT YOU APPRECIATE DRINKING FOUNTAINS AND TOILET SEATS LIKE I DO! Haha, well those examples aren't exactly my point, but they dance around the topic.
Jamie was a GREAT listener!
I don’t pretend to be a very articulate writer, but luckily, I found other people who are! I was really impressed by the caliber of comments that this article provoked. Here are a few comments that express some of my issues with his opinions:

Recovering Hipster writes
“When you are a foreigner, people are either more forgiving of your “weirdness” because they expect it, or they’re just not thinking about how you conform to norms.
My guess is that this guy experienced the enhanced niceness that everyone expresses to foreigners – especially toward Americans, who have been saturating them with media and are therefore more fascinating than other foreigners – and perceived it as a sign of their culture.
Whenever I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve noticed that I get very, very comfortable with being a foreigner for that very reason I mentioned above: people are more forgiving and there’s a general level of awkwardness that’s to be expected, which has an overall dulling effect on any negative social experience.
It’s very easy to get addicted to that position of being a foreigner, and it’s easy to mistake that addiction for you fitting in better in a different culture.
There’s also the fact that other people often *do* look up to Americans, so they’re going to be at the very least interested in asking you questions, if not super friendly. To assume that others are nicer to you just because they’re nicer cultures is to get things a bit wrong.
If I was Peruvian, would they give me the time of day?
When I was in Brazil, everyone was pretty interested in talking to me. At first, I thought it was because I was special. Then, I thought it was because I was foreign. Then, I realized that it was because I was American. They had plenty of news stories and plenty of pop culture that they wanted to talk to me about. The same wouldn’t have been the case if I’d been an Uruguayan.
In the end, though, I came to recognize that their culture wasn’t inherently “nicer” or “more genuine” than mine.
In addition to all that, being a “professional traveler” does not put a person in touch with a culture as much as they’d think. You come to recognize how little you actually “get” a place when you go from being a traveler in a place to being a local who can’t necessarily afford to pack up and go on to the next place. Most places feel like a pair of open arms when arrive as a traveler. This does not signify a more open culture as much as it signifies the fact that you’re a traveling consumer.”

A great wake up call to the author comes from Tricia, who wrote

“…I started reading this article without looking at even the author’s name. Immediately I knew it was written by a straight white male. There’s this thing called “privilege” that some people have that makes them wholly unable to see something from a marginalized perspective. It is quite upsetting.
I have lived abroad as well, though not as extensively as the author. I have never been to Asia or Africa, though I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America and Europe. I have been sexually assaulted much more frequently (despite more precautions taken) while abroad than in the States. Being a male has a lot to do with your presumed levels of safety while you’re out, not to mention comfort.
As guys, we don't have to worry about as many things and get to enjoy it all
 My male roommates when I lived in Nicaragua had all sorts of fun adventures with meeting strangers, staying out late, etc. I could not have a few drinks at a club without someone trying RELENTLESSLY to take me home. I was kissed, felt up, you name it, just for having the audacity to go to a club without a man. This has happened to me in countries in Europe, Latin America, and even here at home, but not nearly as frequently…”

Take some time to read some of the resulting discussions posted on the article, they really make you think. 

Another comment also made me curious:
“I would love to see similar articles by folks from other countries that emigrated outside their native lands, about their own countries. In my interactions with immigrants here in the USA, I hear many amusing observations about their own nations. It’s a sign of humility when you can recognize your own faults, admit that they’re silly and laugh about them [when they don't cause significant harm]. And if there’s one thing the global community of mankind can use, it’s less national pride, and more humility.”
So friends, let me hear your stories! I am really interested to hear if you have ever had a chance to look at our nation (or any other for that matter) after you have seen the way other places are run. (Please refrain from personal attacks)
God Bless the United States of America


  1. A few things I noticed is how anomalous America's health care situation amongst advanced countries, and how our lack of investment in infrastructure is showing compared to a lot of other countries. I came to think we're quite lucky in having a lot of space per person relative to certain countries, and a relatively dynamic economy with a lower structural unemployment. There is a certain amount of American insularity, which makes sense based on the sheer size of the country, and a certain amount of arrogance that comes from a strain of national chauvinism in the national media.

    I also gained a more concrete feeling of America being "home" as compared to just the place that I happen to be from. I didn't really see myself as an "American" as much before I went abroad.

  2. I have to agree with the comment from Tricia that you posted above - as a woman living abroad I think I'm pretty justified in being paranoid, particularly in the city, because of the way that some men (not all but enough that I've resorted to avoiding most of them) feel they can treat women. And from what I hear, it's not just women that experience inappropriate advances from men here in Peru - men looking to make an interesting foreign man as a new drinking partner can be quite forward (and physical) about their intentions. In addition, we certainly have cases of robbery (armed or unarmed - unarmed being the kind I've experienced and which is still startling) and sometimes physical assault among PCVs in Peru, either the author enjoys some protection from being a white male, or he's just been lucky not to be a victim.

    In response to the first comment, I'm sure other PCVs have experienced that after a while living in the same small community not everyone is nice to you anymore. They get accustomed to your presence and start to accept you at least as a fixture in the community if not a fully fledged member - there are a lot of Peruvians in my town that are also from somewhere else and just assigned to work there that get the same kind of treatment. And because everyone is human, you don't get along 100% with everyone. For example, I walked out of a volleyball game a few days ago because my teammates were yelling at me so forcefully for not getting to the ball that I just decided it wasn't worth the stress anymore (and the yelling has been going on since the first few months I played). As another example, someone has tried to spread rumors that I specifically didn't give her part of the incentive from my project because I don't like her, not because she didn't complete the required tasks to receive the incentive. So, yes, people are polite and nice when you're just passing through, but real life isn't like that. A lot of American regions are well-known for their hospitality too, but those of us who live there know that everything is not all smiles and niceties all the time. People are people and if you stay somewhere long enough you'll always find they're not so one-dimensional.

    I agree with the author though, that Americans do get caught up in material comforts to an unhealthy extreme. Granted I miss toilet seats and sinks and floors as much as the next person who used to have them and now doesn't, but I've met plenty of people who've never had these comforts and are still happy with the situation they're in. In fact I really don't feel uncomfortable or unhappy since I initially adjusted to going without all those things. I'm not going to lie, it helps that I know I'll get all that back in a fixed period of time, but I know it's not essential to being happy now.